IT meets biology in donor program

By Mary Brandel
Thursday, 14 March, 2002

Paul Zyla, director of information systems at the non-profit National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) in Minneapolis, and Martin Maiers, manager of bioinformatics and research systems, discuss how IT meets medicine in an effort to save lives.

What are the most critical systems supported or developed by your department on a daily basis? Zyla: "We're broken out into five areas: application development, networking/systems, web development, business systems management and bioinformatics/research. It's almost like a wheel with spokes - we're in the middle, and the spokes are centres throughout the US and the world, whether it's a donor centre that needs to register a donor or a transplant centre that needs to set up a date for a transplant. We develop their software as well as the networking to communicate with us. We also collect data on patients after the transplant for five years."

What happens in the bioinformatics group? Maiers: "Bioinformatics supports the research and scientific services units. Physicians come to the NMDP and say, 'We have to find a match for a particular patient.' Our group focuses on how to store the data that helps find that match. The scientists argue over the best way to do that, and we take those spirited discussions and turn it into software."

How complex is the matching process? Maiers: "It's not like finding a blood-type match, where there are only a few choices. There are over 4.5 million donors registered, with information that has differing degrees of resolution, and the data we got 10 years ago is not at all like the data we're getting today. The system is being discovered as we grow."

Does it help to have a background in biology? Maiers: "It's not a written requirement, but having some biology makes quite a difference. My background is in IT, but I've been here six years and have been taking biology [courses] ever since. I'm finding it more interesting than computer science."

Zyla: "Knowing scientific notation and how to deal with scientific data really helps. We have a senior guy heading up data collection who used to be an astronomy student. And we have an intern who was a chemistry student at Oxford."

How would you describe the culture of IT at your organisation? Zyla: "The department is casual, but everyone is dedicated to what they're doing and why they're doing it."

What makes your company's IT department unique? Zyla: "Within IS, we know what we're developing has the potential to save lives or at least extend lives. We have recruited people from other industries who want to use their skills for the benefit of humanity."

Is the life-saving aspect of what you do evident in your day-to-day work? Zyla: "People are well-informed about what this organisation produces. On a yearly basis, we have a council meeting where all the affiliated centres across the world come to Minnesota for three days. The staff is encouraged to attend and participate. They get to see people on the front lines and mingle with individuals from the donor centres and transplant centres. There's also a donor recipient meeting, which is pretty powerful.

"Another thing the staff is able to do is get trained to become a courier of stem-cell products. That brings the message home very clearly. They have somebody's life in their hands."

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