Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Biomedical Informatics without Borders: Chatting with Martin Hofmann-Apitius

An aside from all the EGEE'09 prep going on in our office, here's my interview with Martin Hofmann-Apitius from the Fraunhofer Institute, who chaired HealthGrid 2009 earlier this year. Martin will soon be appearing in our GridBriefing on eHealth – I caught up with him at the 'Biomedical Informatics without Borders' conference last week.

Do you think eHealth and grid computing has a lot to offer healthcare?

I think [grid computing for health] has a lot of potential. What we have to keep in mind, is that we have to be prepared to go a long, long way with it. It was the grid three years ago – now everybody's talking about the cloud, and actually I don't really care because the point is about interoperability. It's about working together, it's about all the e-science paradigms.

eHealth takes much longer then in the high energy physics community (HEP) because in HEP you have a couple of hundred people working there. In health you have hundreds of thousands and in eHealth you still have a lot of people, much more than in HEP. Therefore finding a common understanding is more difficult in that community and there's all these privacy, and legal and ethical considerations which make things much more complicated. When you look at HEP, the particles that they're looking at they have no will. So they cannot declare their privacy rights - but humans are really complex. And they claim 'I don't want to share my data, I don't want to submit my genome'. Craig Venter has got his genome sequence and made it publicly available but other people are scared of doing that, and that means we've got to be patient with grids and with eHealth.

They have big potential but it will take much longer than the engineering disciplines, the high energy physics, the meterology community, the astronomy community and so on.

If it's going to be a long journey do you think it's important to invest more time, or money or for grid researchers and technicians to co-operate more closely with physicians and clinicians?

There's the human factor – mutual respect and understanding even for opinions that are in contradiction to the eScience paradigm, this is one thing that's necessary. I don't necessarily believe that more money would help; I think that the funding regimes have to be sustainable. In the eHealth arena we have to be aware that impact assessment – the impact of caBIG and other grid health biomedical research infrastructures on health comes in ten years or twenty years. Not in 2010, not in 2012, maybe in 2020. This is something where I'm actually in alignment with Otto Rienhoff (the head of the German MediGRID project). He always says we must not oversell, we must be careful communicating that the grid is the clue to all the problems people have in the healthcare systems.

We will not, in a short time, improve cancer treatment, we will not reduce costs of the healthcare system. We do research on how to use distributed computing, distributed data management and shared semantics to create problem solving environments which ultimately, in a couple of years, will have an effect on costs in the healthcare system or the frequency of discovering new insight - but currently we're still doing groundwork.

So it's a bit of a cautionary tale then?

We should just refrain from producing hype. We should be careful in communication of promises for the people who ultimately pay our salary - the taxpayers - and people in politics, we really have to be careful with what we promise.

On the other side when I look at what people such as Carole Goble [the director of myGrid] and caBIG are doing, it's quite impressive to see what advancements have been made there and how things are evolving so on the other side I'm quite optimistic from a technology point of view.

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