Cancer research portal will benefit researchers

'Resource catalogue' will offer access to multiple data sources. David Schley reports

August 13, 2009

Academics are set to benefit from a portal that will collate all the latest cancer research in one easily accessible place.

The website, launched by the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI), aims to provide direct access to data from multiple sources and an online network to support and inform researchers in the field.

The Oncology Information Exchange (ONIX), set up by the NCRI Informatics Initiative, is described by Stuart Bell, head of community alliances at the NCRI, as "a big encyclopaedia of cancer-research information".

He said it promised to save substantial amounts of researchers' time by improving the efficiency of the day-to-day work necessary to keep abreast of the fast-moving field.

The system allows researchers to make specialised data searches through more than 40 of the world's most important oncological resources, including the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Catalogue of Somatic Mutations in Cancer database and the World Health Organisation's Trials Catalogue. Until now, researchers had to access each of the databases separately.

Those using the system can save complex search criteria to allow easy repeat searches.

Dr Bell said that ONIX is also a "resource catalogue" that compiles an enormous searchable list of information sources, analytical tools and research projects from around the world. This includes summaries of databases, research groups and anything else "pertinent to cancer research".

During testing, the catalogue introduced some "very prominent physicians and researchers" to resources they were unaware of, Dr Bell said.

Use of the system should also improve an academic's profile within the cancer-research community, he said, as registered users can add their own work to the catalogue.

It will not store research data, but will instead provide categorised summaries, links and points of contact for it, Dr Bell added.

No more repetition

One of the hopes is that ONIX will reduce the duplication of research, which wastes money and delays progress.

It is generally accepted that Phase III clinical trials, for example, cost at least £3 million each, Dr Bell said, but there are "so many going on, it is impossible to keep track of them individually".

ONIX will grant researchers access to data on trials being run, those being planned, as well as those already published. "It is hard to quantify how much research duplication is going on," Dr Bell said, "but it is certainly a concern."

Richard Begent, professor of oncology at University College London, tested the system with inexperienced undergraduates as well as members of his expert research group.

He said it was "fundamentally valuable, particularly if researchers are looking slightly outside their area of expertise".

There is a need for a specialist search engine that can discriminate and validate results, he said, and he is convinced that ONIX will make a difference.

The portal was launched last month but is due to undergo refinement in light of user feedback. The NCRI is keen to hear from anyone with comments on the site's usability and usefulness, or suggestions for additional data sources.

"We can build into it what the research community wants," Dr Bell said. One tool already in the pipeline is an intelligent "semantic search" that will make connections rather than just return hits.

For example, a search for a particular gene could also return results on proteins known to be associated with it, Dr Bell said.

Andy Hall, director of the Northern Institute for Cancer Research at Newcastle University, said it was right that the huge amount of data generated in the field be shared.

But he added that ONIX would "have to prove itself" against more established search engines, such as Ensembl.

Researchers can register for the ONIX system online and use it immediately, although the NCRI Informatics Initiative will also run taster sessions for those who want formal introductions.

Two weeks after going live, the system had nearly 1,000 registered users from 15 different countries.

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