Alexander D. Diehl, PhD; Barry Smith, PhD; and Alan H. Ruttenberg are combining expertise in neurology, philosophy and dentistry to aid immunology researchers.

Barry Smith, PhD, Alan H. Ruttenberg and Alexander D. Diehl, PhD, are combining expertise in philosophy, dentistry and neurology to advance immunology research.

Diehl, UB Team Help Develop Immunology Ontologies for NIH

Published April 25, 2013

Alexander D. Diehl, PhD, assistant professor of neurology, is contributing his expertise to a UB team developing ontologies—uniform, agreed-upon systems of meaning—related to immunology and infectious disease.

With the ultimate goal of accelerating scientific discovery, these ontologies will allow scientists to speak the same language, exchange data and compare research results.

Selected by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the UB group also will train researchers in the use of these systems.

With the ultimate goal of accelerating scientific discovery, these ontologies will allow scientists investigating immunology and immune-mediated diseases to speak the same language, exchange data and compare research results.

Major NIH Contract Supports UB Work

The UB work is part of an international, interdisciplinary effort funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through its Bioinformatics Integration Support Contract (BISC).

The five-year contract has a maximum potential value of $30 million.

Database Aims to Advance Research

The immunology ontologies are part of a larger NIH project centered on ImmPort, the Immunology Database and Analysis Portal.

This integrated database aims to broaden the usefulness of life sciences data, creating a more collaborative, coordinated research environment across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

"The immunology ontology effort brings together work I and others have done on separate ontologies such as the Cell Ontology, Gene Ontology and Infectious Disease Ontology over the last decade to create a unified terminology for describing and analyzing immunology and infectious disease data," Diehl explains.

"This will enhance access to and reuse of the data by ImmPort users and the scientific community as a whole."

Diehl’s Experience Includes Neurological Ontologies

Diehl has worked to develop and apply various types of ontologies for molecular biology, immunology and neurobiology, including ontologies representing neurological diseases, infectious diseases, cells and proteins.

He leads an ontology project to represent in vivo cell types, particularly hematopoietic cells and neurons.

Ontologies Fill Crucial Scientific Need

Such scientific ontologies are crucial because “there is no universal, standard terminology in medical and related fields,” explains Barry Smith, PhD, Julian Park Professor of philosophy, who is leading the UB project.

“The way a term is used may be particular to a research area or even a specific research group,” he says. “This makes it difficult for scientists to communicate with one another and share, find or compare data.”

Smith also directs the National Center for Ontological Research and serves as an adjunct professor of neurology and computer science.

UB Researchers Join International Team

The UB team also includes Alan H. Ruttenberg, director of clinical and translational data exchange in the School of Dental Medicine.

The entire BISC project is led by Atul Butte, MD, PhD, chief of systems medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford University.

Other partners are Northrop Grumman Information Technology and scientists from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Vermont.