To kick off the recent Cancer Informatics for Cancer Centers (CI4CC) Spring Symposium, we had the pleasure of organizing a workshop about “The Role of Academic Technology Development in Cancer Research.” The goal of the workshop was to discuss the role of academic informatics technology in cancer research, with an emphasis on technology developed through the Information Technology for Cancer Research (ITCR) program.
ITCR is a relatively young program at NCI that aims to sustainably support development, maintenance, and dissemination of investigator-initiated, research-driven informatics technology. As part of NCI, ITCR is interested in integration of informatics technology development with hypothesis-driven cancer research and translational/clinical investigations. ITCR promotes public-private partnership in technology development and distribution. Both commercial and academic technology play an important role in biomedical research, including clinical research.
In this workshop at CI4CC, we aimed provide a discussion forum to better understand the approaches, strengths, and limitations of academic technology development processes, as well as the interfaces between the commercial and academic technology development communities.
The best way to summarize the discussions would be by the different groups who were represented at the workshop:
- developers of tools and software,
- users of those tools,
- and the stakeholders who have a vested interest in their successful use.
A common theme in the development community presentations was the need to balance innovation with stability. Crowd-sourcing development was definitely seen as a good approach, and feasible with the right controls in place, such as modular development and organized events (e.g., annual meetings). However, a core development team was also seen as a necessity, to ensure consistency, quality, and the ability to update the tools. Incentivizing and retaining good developers was seen as a common challenge.
On the topic of funding, a variety of approaches were discussed, including: multiple grants; a community or federated approach where other groups obtain grants to augment the tool or software; commercial sponsorship at conferences; and using the profit from commercialization of one tool to fund the development of another.
As would be the case with software developed in the commercial or academic sectors, intimate engagement with the end-users during development is crucial to success. Open source is favored, because of the ability to add functionality or interoperability with other systems, and the speakers noted that software choices at cancer centers are very much driven by scientific need.
The NCI perspective emphasized the goal of ensuring the availability of open source tools for broad community access, but also recognized the need to create models to sustain the high-value tools. Collaboration among multiple development teams was seen as a desirable approach to development. The regulatory perspective focused on the challenges associated with 21 CFR Part 11 compliance, and the need for resubmission when changes are made, which can be quite onerous for academic medical centers. Finally, the software vendor noted the challenge of ensuring quality while accepting code contributions, as discussed by the development community. They discussed the use of “plug-ins” as a good approach to extending software capability while maintaining quality control. There was also agreement about the benefits of public-private partnerships, and the value that commercial vendors can bring when scaling-up a piece of software and taking it to market.
For More Details…
We are appreciative that all the speakers have made the slides presented at the workshop publicly available. If you’d like to read more, please visit the workshop website to see the presentations and notes from this meeting.
–A.F, M.G, J.K