High throughput pictures

Emerging standard promises to turn images into quantitative data.

Nov 6, 2002
Barbara Nasto(barbaranasto@yahoo.com)

PHILADELPHIA–At the recent "Chips to Hits" conference (October 27-31) dedicated to high-throughput systems analysis and drug development, Ilya Goldberg of the US National Institute on Aging (NIA) presented an optimistic update on the international effort to standardize imaging data, known as the Open Microscopy Environment (OME). The OME creators are undertaking the technical challenge of converting the traditionally qualitative investigatory process of microscopy into a quantitative one — translating images into numbers to produce a biological result.

The project is the image-data equivalent of the MIAME standard used by many research groups for the purpose of harmonizing microarray data, and recently adopted by several research journals. "We are where MIAME was two to three years ago," explained Goldberg, adding that OMEv2.0 is scheduled for release later this year.

Industry reviews of OME in the Chips to Hits exhibit hall ranged from enthusiastic praise to pragmatism. "We wanted it yesterday," exclaimed Bryan Sullivan a sales director at Applied Precision, which is also one of the project's eight industrial participants. "It will make it easier [to design software] if there are standards," said Nezar Rghei of Imaging Research, Inc. Noting the political challenges still facing OME, Dean Sequera of MediaCybernetics said, "It really depends on how much of the community signs onto the idea."

Goldberg and colleagues said they understand that the question of who should set the standards remains unanswered. One of the project's instigators, biologist Peter Sorger of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), acknowledges that industry has more resources than academia when it comes to writing software programs and that the OME effort exists to complement the industry. Sorger added that he and Jason Swedlow of the University of Dundee, Scotland, have encouraged industry participation in the development process since beginning the project in 1998. Sorger sees the OME effort as part of the much larger trend toward a systems-biology approach to scientific investigations.

Goldberg, for example, is implementing a quantitative imaging system to investigate RNA inhibition in developing Caenorhabditis elegans. "Traditionally, looking at stress responses required manual screening. When you can take what is seen and manage it to meaningful bites, the screen becomes an experiment," Goldberg explained. The quantitative image data can later be linked to other C. elegans databases such as those derived from microarray experiments, providing a more comprehensive perspective for analysis, he noted.