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University of Iowa News Release

Release: Feb. 4, 2003

Engineer Gets $771,000 NIH Grant To Study Blindness

In a research project that uses artificial intelligence to search for inherited causes of blindness, Andrew Williams, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the University of Iowa College of Engineering, has won a three-year, $771,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Williams says that his work is aimed at helping physicians pinpoint inherited sight problems faster and more comprehensively than ever before.

"In very plain language, this research project combines distributed artificial intelligence research with research in disease gene discovery for eye disease," he says. "We make use of multi-agent system technology, that is, several interacting 'intelligent' software agents, to help doctors reach a consensus on a common naming and classification system for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) disease subtypes."

"This 'consensus ontology' will be used with genetic information to see if we can improve the discovery of finding genes that cause eye disease," he says.

One advantage to Williams' approach to investigating blindness is found in the computer software, the Intelligent Distributed Ontology Consensus System (IDOCS), developed by Williams and his colleagues. IDOCS aims at improving phenotyping – examining characteristics resulting from environment and heredity -- as opposed to genotyping – looking at only heredity.

"Our approach takes into account the fact that clinicians have a diverse set of viewpoints and experiences," he says. "We want our agents to assist them in discovering similarities in naming and classifying these subtypes and then coordinate their activities to reach a consensus in a distributed manner."

Williams also notes that the Iowa approach to searching for inherited causes of blindness leverages the power of the Internet so that researchers around the world can participate in the search for the causes of disease without having to leave home. He also says that IDOCS likely will be useful to other medical researchers in looking for inherited causes of other diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.

Williams credits his co-principal investigators and colleagues -- Tom Casavant, director of the UI Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and professor of electrical and computer engineering as well as biomedical engineering, and Dr. Edwin Stone, UI professor of ophthalmology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and director of the UI Center for Macular Degeneration -- with providing collaborative inspiration for the project. The project is currently funded through the NIH's National Eye Institute, Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative (BISTI) program and began with a UI Central Investment Fund for Research Enhancement (CIFRE) award.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 301, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, Writer, 319-384-0009,