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The Italian (Informatics) Job

By Kevin Davies

January 20, 2010 | First Base | Pistoia is a charming small town in Tuscany where in 2007, a group of informatics executives from four leading pharmaceutical companies met to discuss some shared needs. The upshot of that gathering was the non-profit Pistoia Alliance (, with the founding members being AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Novartis, and Pfizer.

Unlike other industry alliances, such as the BioIT Alliance, the Pistoia Alliance was built by and for informatics teams within pharma. “We’re talking about a number of research informatics groups in pharma coming together and saying, ‘We’re sinking in complexity and cost. How can we do better?’ And we can only do better if we go together,” says Pistoia’s communications officer Ramesh Durvasula. Officially launched in Spring 2009, Pistoia aims to define standards, data models, application interfaces, XML models, and so on, in order to lower the barrier to entry and ultimately the cost of pre-competitive collaboration within the pharma community, including CROs.

Durvasula explains there were three major drivers behind the alliance. First was cost pressures, which every pharma is facing. Second is the increasing complexity of the outsourcing relationship with CROs as pre-clinical CROs become increasingly common. Instead of outsourcing a single assay to a CRO, Durvasula says the relationship is more sophisticated with huge networks of CROs, subcontractors, technology service providers, and offshore agencies, all participating in the discovery and development of a single compound. Third, big pharmas are increasingly acting as CROs or a biotech partner to each other. Durvasula says his own company, Bristol-Myers Squibb, has joint development partnerships on three compounds with other pharmas—a cardiovascular drug with Pfizer, and two diabetes candidates with AstraZeneca.

Because of these pressures, many pharmas have recognized the need for greater pre-competitive collaboration (see “Lilly’s Grid Goes Open Source,” Bio•IT World, July 2008). The Alliance currently has more than 20 members, including some academics and software vendors such as Infosys and Accelrys. Discussions are ongoing regarding the positioning with the BioIT Alliance. Durvasula says Pistoia will be more customer-driven, whereas the BioIT Alliance is more technology-driven. Any company, vendor, or academic group can join. Pistoia membership and participation is free, while a voting role carries a nominal annual fee of $15,000.

A goal of Pistoia is to define a number of data models and service standards in order to standardize methods across the industry for sharing data and samples. There are currently 3-4 funded projects, the most mature of which is an electronic lab notebook (ELN) query services system for common information, so companies can share multiple ELN content into an ELN datamart.

To Go Far, Go Together

Several other projects are ongoing. Take text mining. “We all download everything, text mine, index,” says Durvasula. “Could there be a central standard way of querying in a semantically rich way, so a search on a gene name expands the query to include all related terms?”

Pistoia has an agreement with the European Bioinformatics Institute to deliver a prototype of a semantic enrichment system. “Rather than download all content inside the firewall, we’re going to download it centrally, index it centrally, and query it in a private, secure manner. By increasing the standardization, we’re increasing the opportunity for cloud computing to be leveraged, so we don’t have to do everything behind our firewall.” Pistoia is working with the Pharma Documentation Ring (PDR) to discuss an initiative called the semantic enrichment of scientific literature (SESL). Then there’s an analytical chemistry method execution markup language. There would be tremendous tech transfer advantages to being able to transfer analytical methods from one ELN vendor to another using a standardized markup language.

Although Durvasula’s day job is head of chemistry informatics at BMS, Pistoia is not limited to chemistry but spans the research environment. The founding evangelists include Pfizer’s Chris Waller (senior director, pre-competitive collaborations) and Kevin Hebbel (associate director, chemistry informatics); Pistoia president Nick Lynch (AstraZeneca, UK), Deb Igo (global lead chemistry information systems, Novartis), Matthias Nolte (currently the founder of chemITment inc., and previously part of Pfizer chemistry informatics) and Ashley George (director of strategic IT portfolio for discovery at GSK).

In January 2010, Pistoia will have its first face-to-face meeting. This will be the mission definition meeting, a forward-looking agenda. “This is the critical meeting that will define the next five years of Pistoia,” says Durvasula. He quotes an old African saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Editor’s Note: Pfizer’s Chris Waller will be speaking about the Pistoia Alliance at the 2010 Bio-IT World Expo on April 21st.

This article also appeared in the January-February 2010 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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