Biotech a driving force for IT

The biological sciences are now the driving force for the development of advanced computing, according to Compaq Computer Corp. executive Lionel Binns. But there’s a catch, he warned – there aren’t enough computer scientists to go around, and this would increasingly be a problem for the industry.

Binns, Compaq’s worldwide life sciences group manager for high-performance technical computing, made his remarks at a seminar hosted by Australia’s Victorian Advanced Computing Association earlier this month.

He estimated that about five to 10 per cent of biological research was now done “in silico,” and predicted that the figure would reach 25 per cent in the next few years.

While the Human Genome Project was a major driver for computational biology, Binns said, protein structures and proteomics were now generating huge amounts of data requiring faster processing and terabyte levels of data storage.

For example, Swiss/U.S. company GeneProt has more than 1,400 of Compaq’s Alpha-based processors, with more than 50 mass spectrometers at its proteomics facility in Geneva, he said – a data-generating system that required 100TB of new data storage per quarter.

Binns said he believed that the life sciences’ eventual goal would be the ability to look at systems biology, the biology of the whole organism.

“Can we get to the point where we can do clinical trials in silico from start to finish?” he asked, but suggested that virtual patients and true personalized medicine were a long way into the future.

“At the moment, simulating a cell is unbelievably hard – where do you start?” Binns said. “There are too many unknowns – we don’t even know how water works in the cell – but this is the goal.”

Binns said that in order to solve biological problems such as disease, comprehensive and long-term medical records needed to be linked to biological information gained from genomics and proteomics.

“Somehow we have to be able to, for a large diverse population, do a study of their medical records over a long period of time,” he suggested.

Binns later said that Tasmania was potentially a population that could become involved in a project of this nature, due to its ethnically diverse population (compared to other well-studied populations, such as Iceland) relatively young history and good relationship with studies of this kind.

According to Binns, Compaq currently has over 45 per cent of the computational biology market.