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Fox improving access
to breast cancer findings
March 8, 1999
Nearly 10 years ago, Marty Fox, a professor of electrical and systems engineering, was selected as a peer reviewer for a U.S. Army funded Breast Cancer Initiative, a multi-pronged research effort targeting the causes, prevention, detection, treatment and outcome of incidences of breast cancer.
Now, Fox is helping find a way to deliver to today's breast cancer researchers some of the information gleaned from that 1991 study, and many others since then, in an easily accessible format on the Internet.
The Breast Cancer Knowledge Harvest, being developed by Science Applications Interax Corp. (SAIC) on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, is an effort to create an archive of current research on breast cancer developed in such a way that researchers can gain access, through a set of keywords or even scientific theories, to exactly what they're seeking.
Currently, says Fox, who holds both a Ph.D. and an M.D., there is so much research available that wading through the Internet for information on breast cancer could result in thousands or, perhaps, millions of "hits," Fox says. The task, then, is to create a search engine that would allow researchers to type in a scientific hypothesis, rather than a generic keyword, and receive only information that is specific to the question.
"It's taking the Internet to a whole new level," he says. "We're just beginning to peek over that mountain."
Some pieces of the new system have already been installed, Fox says. But his area, which involves detecting breast cancer in its early stages, is more difficult than the other areas because Fox's expertise cuts across physics, engineering, and medicine, and the information goes beyond simple data that could be written in code and entered into the program.
It will also present a challenge, he says, for the graduate assistants - Patty Gasparini, Yu-Fan Liu, Matthew Cross, and Heath Opper - he has hired to help him with what he terms the "knowledge harvest."
Still, he says, the challenge will provide a good exercise. "This will be very valuable for them. They're going to have to learn how to parse through a scientific paper, and learn what bits of information should be saved for the harvest. And a lot of these (papers) are on pretty hot topics, so they're going to learn a lot. Not just knowledge, but how to take that knowledge and turn it into research projects," Fox says.
"I'd love to see (the graduate assistants) come out of this with some ideas for their own research projects. We're at a time in history where we're seeing a lot of progress in cancer research, and it would be great if this project helped start a new thread," Fox adds.
Fox says the idea of the knowledge harvest, already several years in the making, is still a year or two from development. But, he adds, he has little doubt it will spur the next generation of search engines on the Internet.
"We have to extend the system," Fox says, "and go beyond keywords."