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Northrop Grumman, UTSW Boost Biodefense Resources

By Steven Withrow

Feb 15, 2006 | Fighting bioterrorism and infectious disease is not part of the usual IT job description. But Northrop Grumman’s IT sector routinely moves beyond the usual, having garnered two multimillion-dollar bioinformatics development contracts since 2004.

ImmPort, Immunology Database and Analysis Portal, is the result of a six-year, $29.6 million contract awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in September 2004 and funded through the Bioinformatics Integration Support Contract.

“We’re in the second year of the two-year base,” says Kevin Biersack, project director for Herndon, Va.-based Northrop Grumman IT. ImmPort version 1.0 was deployed on October 31, 2005, with version 2.0 due in September 2006.

ImmPort, which focuses on research related to immune-system diseases, is a private resource open only to investigators funded by NIAID’s Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation.

Richard H. Scheuermann from the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center at Dallas is the principal investigator. Northrop Grumman also works with subcontractors including KEVRIC Company, Unicorn Solutions, and Biomind LLC.

ImmPort’s goals, says Scheuermann, are to integrate data from clinical trials, animal models of immune disease, and basic immunology research; to support advanced analytical approaches for systems-level data mining to allow researchers to better identify alterations in genes that lead to diseases such as type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis; and to identify proteins involved in shaping immune responses to vaccination and infection.

ImmPort uses for visualization a genomic browser adopted from the University of Pennsylvania and an ontology browser coupled with an ontology editor, Stanford University’s Protégé tool.

Northrop Grumman’s second NIAID project, with the Division for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID), is the result of a five-year, $16.9 million contract announced in August 2004 and funded through the Bioinformatics Resource Centers for Biodefense and Emerging/

Reemerging Infectious Disease program to develop a series of public databases that assemble and analyze research data and biological knowledge about defined human pathogens.

The first version of BioHealthBase, Biodefense Public Health Database, is scheduled to be deployed on January 31, 2006, and will focus on two pathogens, influenza virus and Francisella tularensis, with additional data for two other pathogens, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and microsporidia. The database allows for the addition of other microorganisms.

“The focus of our microorganisms has not only a biodefense flavor, which met the requirements of NIAID DMID for this procurement, but we also chose microorganisms that have a public-health flavor,” says Biersack.

Unlike ImmPort, BioHealthBase can be used by anyone funded by an NIH grant or contract, but also outside of NIH. Biersack is again the project director and collaborates with Scheuermann (again the PI) and UTSW, and subcontractors AMAR International and Vecna Technologies.

Scheuermann credits the staff at UTSW, who have combined background in experimental research and computer science, for playing essential roles in the two NIAID projects, including defining system requirements; developing data standards and ontologies; identifying and evaluating sources of biological data; designing data integration approaches; performing data analysis and curation activities; and developing and implementing new data analysis algorithms using state-of-the-art computational biology approaches.

A third biodefense project, more classic of Northrop Grumman’s IT sector, is in support of building a national biocontainment laboratory — the National Emerging and Infectious Disease Laboratory — at Boston University Medical Center, which awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman in March 2005 for the laboratory’s information systems design and architecture.

Northrop Grumman is a global defense company headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif., that provides a broad array of products, services, and solutions in systems integration, defense electronics, IT, advanced aircraft, shipbuilding, and space technology. The company employs more than 125,000 employees worldwide and serves U.S. and international military, government, and commercial customers.

“Northrop Grumman is a technological leader in advanced health solutions,” says Biersack. “The BioHealthBase and ImmPort systems are two significant bioinformatics programs within the company’s health-IT business that help our government customers achieve their mission of more efficient research and better data for insight into public-health issues.”

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