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Shaping the Future of Software
Data Fixes for Drug Discovery

by Alicia P. Gregory

One of Hayes's top students, Tina Gao, came up with an idea to put drug discovery on the fast track. Gao, who did undergraduate work in her native China, followed her husband from Penn State to Lexington when he decided to join UK's computer science program. Her background is in one of the hottest areas in life sciences—bioinformatics (acquiring, archiving and analyzing biological data).

Gao cites the human genome project as the best-known example of bioinformatics. "There are 100,000 genes in the human genome. My goal is to use computer science to solve a lot of data analysis problems in bioinformatics," she says.

She states the problem: research labs and universities around the world have developed computer systems, in various programming languages, to do parts of the 15-step process you run gene sequences through on your way to discovering new drugs. The challenge comes in when you get data out of one system, and the system for the next step can't "read" it because it doesn't expect the data in that particular format. It's a compatibility problem.

"Biology people are not computer professionals, so it is very difficult for them to understand the logic of each system and how to integrate those systems together," says Gao. "So what they actually do is get a result from one system and manually transport it [reformat it by hand] into another system. But with the big success of the human genome project and the tons of data that are generated, it will be very difficult for people to do what they did manually before. We really need some automatic way to integrate all those systems together."

And that's what she's built for three of these 15 steps—a generic interface that is a Web service. It accesses, translates and reformats data through the Internet. Hayes and Gao are looking into patenting this work because, as far as they can tell, this is a new approach, especially with its application to life sciences research.

Gao, who is wrapping up her master's studies, says both she and her husband agree that Hayes is one of the best advisors they've ever had. "She gave us a lot of advice on academics, and she was very considerate of our different cultural background. We appreciate that," Gao says.

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