Excellence Awards: IT, biotech pair up for treatment

Two potential lifesavers and a project to help the country's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry feature in the new biotechnology category of the Computerworld Excellence Awards.

Two potential lifesavers and a project to help the country's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry feature in the new biotechnology category of the Computerworld Excellence Awards.

Improving treatment for children with heart defects is the aim of the cardio image modelling (CIM) system developed by Auckland University and installed at Greenlane Hospital.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has revolutionised medical imaging, clinical diagnosis and treatment. It is capable of producing high quality images of all parts of the body and over the past five years has been increasingly used on people with heart disease.

One problem with it, says Dr Alistair Young (pictured), a senior lecturer in bioimaging at Auckland University, is that it takes an enormous amount of time to analyse the images, when all the clinician needs is to know how big the heart is and how much blood it's pumping.

Young created the MRI modelling application using C and C++, software algorithms and open source software. The program runs under RedHat Linux 7.2 on standard Intel PC workstations and laptops with nVidia GeForce 4 Ti graphic acceleration cards.

He says the system gives clinicians the required information within a few minutes instead of half an hour. This means patients can receive the appropriate treatment more quickly.

Since CIM has been developed its use has extended to hospitals in Australia, the US and the UK, with the university signing a major deal with Seimens to use CIM in its magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

CIM is used by Auckland consultant radiologist Dr Christopher Occleshaw, who routinely scans five patients each week. The images are transferred to Green Lane for analysis. Many of the patients are children with heart defects.

Dr Brett Cowan (pictured) of Auckland Hospital's Department of Medicine says the software spares the patient an operation and is an essential ingredient in diagnosis, surgical planning and evaluation of the outcome.

"In the case of young children, the alternative is an invasive procedure. You have to puncture their skin to insert a tube into their heart, inject dye and use X-rays. For the children that requires these multiple tears. It [CIM] only requires them to lie there. It is not as unpleasant and is more accurate than ultrasound," he says. "It is helping to save lives."

Cowan believes the CIM technology is a winner because it uses high technology, high-end mathematics and is extremely well accepted by the medical community.

Auckland University, which owns the patent through its commercial UniServices division, has "done better", he says, than the multinationals with its technology. "It's now utilised at some of the best medical centres in the world."

Asthma sufferer Garth Sutherland, meanwhile, has developed an electronic inhaler that uses the web to aid the correct administration of drugs.

Sutherland, director of Auckland company Nexus6, claims two-thirds of the country's 550,000 asthmatics do not administer their medication properly, resulting in poor health, permanent lung damage, fatality and an annual cost to the country of $800 million.

Traditional inhalers consist of an aerosol canister housed in a plastic enclosure.

Nexus6's Smarthaler system replaces this with an "intelligent" housing that contains electronics including a microprocessor, which tracks the user's drug administration behaviour. The user uploads this information at a convenient time to a website, where treatment algorithms process the information and feed back preferred administration programmes to the user.

While other electronic inhalers exist, Sutherland claims his is the first web-enabled model. It uses Microsoft framework methodologies and is written in .Net technology.

Nexus6, which is based at Auckland University's IceHouse business accelerator, has secured government technology development funding. Since Smarthaler was launched earlier this year, Nexus6 says it has been discussing its application with both Pharmac and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

Sutherland says Nexus6 is using its Smarthaler technology to create systems for the delivery of other drugs.

Auckland biotechnology company Vialactia is part of a consortium that created a bioinformatics portal to improve the scientific analysis of genomic data. The company uses specialised algorithms to analyse DNA sequence data, particularly in the agricultural sector.

(The process of genomic data management, mining and discovery process using IT is known as bioinformatics.)

ViaLactia's portal is helping AgResearch, Agritech and DEEResearch study the genome of clover -- an important pasture plant in New Zealand's agricultural industry. The technology is expected to lead the consortium to quicker genetic discoveries in the plant.

The portal, which is also available for commercial use, provides a customisable web interface via PHP and Perl scripts. Created using C, JavaScript and Java applets, and running on a secure Apache web server, the portal is backed by an Oracle database. This allows fast searching, browsal and retrieval. Some 200 analysis tools are offered. Raw and processed data is stored in a Unix file system that stores a terabyte of data and is shareable across different platforms.

ViaLactia staff scientist Claudia Espinoza-Smith says the portal is fast, user-friendly and provides a platform and the necessary logistics for team efforts in gene mining and discovery. "Not only has it saved the company expense but in fact the service fees we charge are currently the company's largest revenue stream."

The "excellence in the use of IT in biotechnology" award is sponsored by SolNet.

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