Massive Linux Computing Grid to Tackle Breast Cancer

A new grid computing network in British hospitals promises to gives doctors a new tool in the fight against breast cancer. The stakes are high: breast cancer strikes approximately one in every eight women in the U.S. and Europe.

The grid will create a massive digital ‘photo album’ of mammogram scans available to medical experts across the U.K.,” said Nicholas Donofrio, senior vice president, technology and manufacturing for IBM.

Funded jointly by IBM and the U.K. Government, the project is expected to cost about $6 million. IBM has worked with the University of Pennsylvania on a similar mammography grid, for hospitals in the U.S. The U.K. grid, however, will be the first grid IBM has built entirely with commercially available technology, according to the company.

The grid will run on IBM pSeries and xSeries servers running AIX and Linux, and make use of IBM software including DB2, DiscoveryLink and WebSphere. It will be based on open protocols and will incorporate the Globus Toolkit, an open source grid management software package.

Initially, the Grid will link a large database of mammograms shared by four hospitals in Oxford, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The project potentially could be expanded to all 92 screening centers throughout the U.K., creating Britain’s first national digital mammography archive.

The grid is both a processing grid and a storage grid, according to Dan Powers, IBM’s vice-president of grid computing strategy. “It essentially virtualizes both the servers and the storage,” he says, “so applications running in different locations will have the same views of the data, and think they are running on the same infrastructure.”

That means researchers will be able to fire of cpu-intensive analyses that were difficult to run in the past, and the grid will take advantage of processing power available in different areas of the grid.

It also creates a huge pool of standardized data, which researchers can use to do things like look for cancer clusters in the U.K.

In the past, medical researchers couldn’t easily examine such large amounts of mammogram data, because of the wide variety of data formats produced by different x-ray machines. The grid will use software developed by British imaging firm Mirada Solutions to convert both new and existing digital mammogram images to a common format.

The increased accessibility of mammograms should also improve the diagnostic rate for breast cancer, according to Powers. “This is a huge benefit to the patient,” he says, “because doctors will have on demand access to mammograms and be able to see more mammograms each year, which increases their ability to detect cancer. The research shows that the more mammograms doctors look at, the better their diagnosis rate becomes.”