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Andrew says that IBM added this layer of intelligent search by “training” the software with human experts. IBM’s Business Consulting Service (BCS) employs these experts in various technical areas. They apply their knowledge to tag words, phrases, and concepts that the software then uses to find relevant information. In the development of the clinical trials portal, it took health and medicine experts a few months to create these specialized tags, according to Andrews.

Another feature of the portal is language translation. “Quite a lot of the world speaks English, and much of the trials information is authored in English,” says Johnnie Summerfield of IBM BCS, who worked on the project. But not everyone speaks and reads English of course. So the portal is also searchable in German, French, Japanese, and Spanish.

According to Andrews, the language translation feature was built into OmniFind using IBM software called LanguageWare, which also corrects misspelled words. The language translation software is customizable for words in specific fields. Since medical terminology is used in clinical trials information, the software pulls from a dictionary that includes medical terms in five languages.

Summerfield suspects that, given all its usability features, the clinical trials portal could affect more than doctors and patients. Another area where the project could have an impact, he says, is in the transparency of clinical trials procedures and results. It’s a topic that’s been making headlines for a number of years, and recently in the clinical trial of PolyHeme, a blood substitute developed by Northfield Laboratories, in which ten patients suffered heart attacks and two died after receiving the treatment. The trial was stopped early and the results weren’t made public, the Wall Street Journal reported in February.

“By providing transparency, [IFPMA’s Clinical Trials Portal] will improve information because many of the organizations referenced through the portal will inevitably seek to make their information clearer and better represented through the site,” Summerfield says. “This will increase the quality and also probably help to increase and improve the sensibility of that information.”

In the meantime, however, the clinical trials portal has already elicited responses from cancer survivors, Andrews says. A day after announcing the portal, for instance, IBM received an e-mail from a lung cancer survivor who believes a clinical trial helped save her life. She described her challenge in locating a clinical trial. “She finally found one at a university website,” Andrews says, “but it took her a while.”

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