Open source closes SCAR meeting

May 23, 2004

The benefits of open source software to medicine were celebrated at the closing session of the SCAR meeting Sunday."Open source is not socialism," said Stephen G. Langer, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.Rather, it's a concept of

The benefits of open source software to medicine were celebrated at the closing session of the SCAR meeting Sunday.

"Open source is not socialism," said Stephen G. Langer, Ph.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

Rather, it's a concept of distributing source code along with the program. Open source software is a revolutionary philosophy, since it removes profit from the equation. Microsoft's Steve Balmer has called it the most dangerous virus.

Radiology has benefited from the concept of open source since the 1993 release of DICOM Central Test Node software by Mallinckrodt University. The same year, Linus Torvalds released the source code of his Linux operating system.

The concept of open source software began earlier, in 1984, when the Maasachusetts Institute of Technology distributed an open source version of Unix called GNU.

While open source software may be relatively new to many people in radiology, nearly all servers running their PACS and e-mail systems use some form of open source code.

"Over 73% of all Web servers are based on Apache open source software," Langer said.

Linux has become such a popular alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating systems that every large PACS vendor has Linux applications in development, he said.

One recent example of how open source can benefit medicine was offered by Steven J.M. Jones, Ph.D., a scientist at the British Columbia Cancer Research Center. He used open source software to completely sequence the SARS virus in less than five days.

The first cases of SARS were identified Feb. 15, 2003. On March 21, the World Health Organization issued a global alert, severely limiting travel in some areas, Toronto included.

Jones received the first virus DNA sample on Monday, April 6, and by 11:30 that Saturday, he had the whole DNA assembled.

The SARS DNA sequence was immediately put on the Internet for anyone to use free. Scientists around the world could apply their own talents to testing and drug development.

"The first possible drug candidate appeared in a Science paper within 60 days," Jones said.

The SARS open source episode made headlines everywhere, including the cover of the November 2003 issue of the Linux Journal.

Jones said some widely used open source programs popular in the bioinformatics community include Linux, PER, PHP, MySQL, and Apache.

"Open source is critical to science," Jones said. "We need to be able to inspect , confirm, and accredit the software used for experimentation. We cannot work in a box."