- Open Access
Semantic web data warehousing for caGrid
© McCusker et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2009
Published: 01 October 2009
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is developing caGrid as a means for sharing cancer-related data and services. As more data sets become available on caGrid, we need effective ways of accessing and integrating this information. Although the data models exposed on caGrid are semantically well annotated, it is currently up to the caGrid client to infer relationships between the different models and their classes. In this paper, we present a Semantic Web-based data warehouse (Corvus) for creating relationships among caGrid models. This is accomplished through the transformation of semantically-annotated caBIG® Unified Modeling Language (UML) information models into Web Ontology Language (OWL) ontologies that preserve those semantics. We demonstrate the validity of the approach by Semantic Extraction, Transformation and Loading (SETL) of data from two caGrid data sources, caTissue and caArray, as well as alignment and query of those sources in Corvus. We argue that semantic integration is necessary for integration of data from distributed web services and that Corvus is a useful way of accomplishing this. Our approach is generalizable and of broad utility to researchers facing similar integration challenges.
Introduction and background
We propose a Semantic Web data warehouse approach that enables users to map data from multiple grid data sources into an ontologically-driven data store, or knowledge base (KB), where they can use data from a semantic perspective. caGrid, a core technology of caBIG® ("Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid") [1–5], is a semantically annotated grid sponsored by the National Cancer Institute that provides a consistent framework for grid web services. The information models of the grid services are mapped to concepts from the NCI Thesaurus (NCIt) [6–9], a rich, cancer-focused terminology source, through Common Data Elements (CDEs) registered in the Cancer Data Standards Repository (caDSR) . The grid services advertise the information models that they support to a centralized Index Service for use by grid clients. CDEs represent semantically interoperable "join points" among information models, which provide a basis for data integration.
Clients access caGrid to retrieve data from diverse services such as omic  stores (caArray) or tissue repositories (caTissue). From the client perspective, there is no transparent mapping of semantics onto data from grid services. When a caGrid client wants to join data from one service to another, or attempts to make claims about a particular datum being equivalent to another, it must inspect the metadata to determine if, and how, data from two services are interoperable. A naive client that is unaware of the service metadata will be unable to make that mapping. In other words, semantic interoperability is the job of the client and requires the ability to reason over (or interpret) the metadata, including class hierarchies, attributes, associations, and their corresponding annotations to establish equivalencies.
Fortunately, there is already a solution that is available that can perform exactly those tasks: The Web Ontology Language (OWL)  is a formal way of describing relationships among concepts and any data defined in the Resource Description Framework (RDF) [15, 16]. OWL is relevant here because it provides for class hierarchies, properties, and equivalencies. It also provides a means for multiple ontologies to coexist and for mappings to be defined between them. A client that can take advantage of the formal definitions of OWL through inferencing rules would have the ability to automatically map between data models on the grid. We show that a client that imports data from multiple grid services and maps that data onto ontologies derived from the published service metadata could then join that data within the Semantic Web environment to allow a much larger set of queries to be realized.
Semantic Web data warehousing allows users to define which data sources they are interested in and automates the extraction, transformation, and loading process (ETL) through semantic ETL (SETL)  across entire classes of data sources. Semantic Web data warehouses are dynamic data stores, which, as we will show, can model and store data from diverse grid services on the fly. Users will be able to query the grid in novel ways using the data warehouse as a proxy and will be able to dynamically integrate new data sources as needed.
Transforming UML to OWL
In order to perform semantic-web-based SETL on caGrid services, it is imperative to understand how to map UML constructs and their NCIt annotations (caGrid models) onto semantic-web constructs (OWL ontologies). UML is the de facto standard for object-oriented visual modeling and has no formal semantics. Its main constructs are classes, attributes, associations, and generalizations. A UML class is a representation of an object-oriented class, which is defines a set of objects with common characteristics indicated as attributes. An association is a relation between classes and a generalization relates a parent class with a child class. On the other hand, OWL is a knowledge modeling language with a formal semantics based on Description Logics (DLs) . Its main constructs are classes, datatype properties, and object properties. An OWL class denotes a set of individuals or instances. Properties are standalone entities, establishing relationships between individuals (object properties) or between individuals and data values (datatype properties) . Although UML and OWL have similar constructs, they have significant differences. Mainly, UML follows a Closed World Assumption (CWA) while OWL follows an Open World Assumption (OWA). In CWA, lack of information means negative information. In OWA, lack of information means lack of knowledge.
Previous work has compared and contrasted UML and OWL and provided transformations between the two [19–25]. These transformations were motivated by different applications and specified in varying levels of detail. For example, Berardi et al  provided an incomplete transformation from UML class diagrams to description logics and analyzed the complexity of the reasoning to detect inconsistencies in the model. Evermann  described an exhaustive conversion to make a well-known ontology, specified in natural language, available in more formal representations.
To the best of our knowledge, semCDI [24, 25] is the only work providing an annotated-UML-to-OWL transformation based on the caGrid infrastructure. semCDI, as with all the previous approaches, maps UML classes to OWL classes, UML attributes to datatype properties, and associations to object properties. caGrid UML classes are annotated with NCIt concepts, and there is a need to represent these associations in OWL. semCDI does this by creating parent-child relationships between the OWL-converted UML class (the child) and the associated NCIt class (the parent), using concepts of an OWL-formatted NCIt. Using subsumption to represent this relationship results in a potentially inconsistent ontology. Examples include situations where a UML class is annotated with two or more NCIt concepts, some of which are explicitly stated as disjoint in NCIt. In caGrid, attributes are also annotated with NCIt concepts. As semCDI represents attributes as datatype properties, there are some difficulties in representing the NCIt associations. The only available option is to represent the NCIt annotation as an OWL annotation property. However, OWL annotation properties are used to represent metadata on OWL constructs and are not considered for reasoning purposes.
Considering the issues presented above, we have designed a different annotated UML-to-OWL transformation that does not model attributes as datatype properties and does not model NCIt annotations of UML classes using subsumption. Our transformation, described in detail under the Methods section, follows a general, modular approach for ontology development. Particularly, it includes a common approach for modeling NCIt annotation for both UML classes and attributes, which guarantees to preserve NCIt semantics.
In order to assess the feasibility of Semantic Web-based SETL on caGrid services, we first identified a real-world use case involving caGrid that included the need for semantically merging disparate information models. Specifically, we identified the need to join data from caTissue and caArray, two caGrid services exposing tissue and micro-array data, respectively. The use case involves the need to link a microarray experiment with clinical annotations linked to the specimen from which the experiment was derived. Imagine a situation where a specimen S is stored in caTissue and a microarray result M (derived from specimen S) is stored in caArray. Currently, it is possible to query caGrid for a single service using the caGrid Query language (CQL). Assume that we get results (data) from caTissue on S, which we call R s . Equally, we get results from querying caArray, which we call R m . As discussed above, the linking of R s to R m is not trivial. There is a need to identify the classes and attributes in both the caTissue and caArray models that align and the constraints under which two instances from the two models can be linked together.
In this paper, we demonstrate that this can be elegantly accomplished using Semantic Web technology. We first set up an instance of caTissue and caArray on the caGrid training grid. We then loaded specimen information of a particular set of cell lines called NCI-60  into caTissue. NCI-60 is a collection of cancer cell lines for which there exists a multitude of micro-array experiments (gene expression or copy number experiments). We recorded the disease class of each of the cell lines in caTissue. We then loaded an NCI-60 gene expression set into our caArray instance. The quest was to link the caTissue and caArray datasets, i.e. link the expression sets in caArray with specific disease information in caTissue. We will present how we use SETL to perform this linking.
Results and discussion
Load and query performance. Load and query times for the operations used. The compute environment used an Intel Core 2 Quad @ 2.40 GHz and 4 GB of memory. The repository was single-threaded.
Data Size (Entities)
Data Size (Statements)
Processing Time (s)
Corvus is, at this time, still a prototype system with components that serve as proof of concept. We plan on expanding its ability in the future to allow for automated SETL and linkage of scientific data. Work also needs to be done on providing visualizations and other user interfaces.
SETL is a valid technique for gathering information from semantically annotated grid services and using that semantic annotation as a means to search and view that information. It provides opportunities for integration of data that was not designed for that purpose. This allows for analysis of many different data types on a dynamic basis and makes it possible for informaticists to continually integrate relevant new data sources as they become available with far less effort than would be needed in a traditional data warehousing environment. Corvus, along with the caGrid security and semantic annotation infrastructure, allows for integration of data across institutions as well as across applications as long as those institutions use the same semantic metadata. This has large implications for increased collaboration in biomedical research.
At the core of Corvus is a Semantic Web-based data warehouse based on BigOWLIM, within which we assemble our data by integrating various caGrid data sets. A key feature of our approach involves using OWL ontologies that have been generated from semantically annotated caGrid UML information models. Components of the Corvus framework support a Semantic ETL workflow that pulls data from public caGrid data services. It then translates that data into RDF/OWL that conforms to the OWL ontologies generated. Finally, it stores that information, along with the generated ontologies, in a Semantic Web KB. Because of this, it is possible to dynamically combine caGrid data sets while preserving semantic annotation of the caGrid information models. It also enables the use of Semantic Web technologies such as SPARQL (SPARQL Protocol and RDF Query Language), Semantic Web Rule Language (SWRL), and Description Logics (DL) reasoning services on that data.
Semantic ETL in Corvus consists of the following steps: generation of OWL ontologies from caGrid information models and loading them into the KB; submitting one or more queries to caGrid data services; transforming that data into RDF triples; and then loading those triples into the KB. As the data is loaded into the KB, custom rules are used to infer relationships between the data from the two sources. This allows queries to be joined through the inferred relationships.
We use two caGrid database applications, caTissue and caArray, to demonstrate the ability to link related information from independent databases. caTissue is a biospecimen banking and management tool developed through the NCI for use in research tissue banks. It is able to store information about biospecimens and the individuals they originated from. caArray is a microarray management tool developed through the NCI and is a MicroArray and Gene Expression (MAGE)-compliant array repository. Both caTissue and caArray can publish data via caGrid services.
caTissue and caArray instances were deployed with caGrid services that published to the caGrid training grid. Expression data was loaded from GEO GSE5949  by downloading the data and converting it into the MAGE-TAB format using the GEOImport and TabConverter tools from the tab2mage project .
Additional curation was needed to fix some references to array designs and to ensure that all Characteristics [CellLine] entries were valid and entered. The data was then uploaded to caArray . Data on the cell lines, such as specific clinical diagnosis, was collected from the NCI SKY/M-FISH & CGH Database  and curated into a caTissue instance.
Semantic ETL process
The Ontology Generator generates OWL ontologies from published caGrid data service UML information models. These ontologies represent the UML information model, semantic annotations on those models, and the relevant parts of the NCIt. We generated ontologies from the caArray 2.1 and caTissue Suite 1.1 models. These ontologies are then loaded into the Corvus data warehouse.
The Data Extractor handles CQL queries of objects and the relationships between those objects. For example, we query caTissue for a CollectionProtocol object. Here, the path information indicates how the associated CellSpecimen objects should be included in the resulting object graph. The Data Extractor uses the CQL and path information to pull XML data from caGrid data services. The ETL Process then passes the XML data to a Transformer Service instance that provides an XML to OWL transformation. The resulting OWL instance data is then loaded in the Corvus data warehouse.
We also need a third helper ontology to represent the NCIt concepts relevant to a particular caGrid UML model. While we could import the whole (OWL-transformed) NCIt, we were interested in extracting the relevant NCIt concepts to reduce the overall ontology size. Figure 3 shows that the resulting ontologies are specific for a particular caGrid model, such as caTissue (NCIt Module for caTissue) and caArray (NCIt Module for caArray). We use the methodology in  to extract relevant subsets from NCIt. This methodology has the following properties : a) it preserves NCIt semantics; b) it includes everything that is relevant to the particular information model ontology; and c) it imports only what is relevant. The resulting NCIt Module ontologies are then imported during the UML-to-OWL transformation process (Figure 3).
The Data Extractor component works with most caGrid data services that have been generated from the caCORE Software Development Kit (SDK). For this effort, we queried caArray and caTissue. The Data Extractor relies on knowledge of caCORE conventions for naming of object identifiers (i.e. primary keys) and XML-UML mapping rules. A future enhancement to the Data Extractor may pull metadata about XML-UML mapping rules and identifiers directly from caDSR.
We expose an XML to RDF/OWL Transformation service to convert caGrid XML to RDF that conforms to the ontologies generated by the ontology generator. The Transformer Service is a generic service that exposes any configured XML-to-XML transformation (including XML to RDF/OWL) as a stateful grid service. These services advertise what kinds of transformations they support and therefore enable clients to dynamically discover available transformations. We have provided a general-purpose Transformer implementation that will transform XML from caCORE SDK generated data services by using caCORE SDK UML-to-XML conventions. A future enhancement may pull UML-to-XML mapping metadata from caDSR.
Loading data from caTissue and caArray
The output from the transformation service was then loaded into Corvus. Corvus supports a number of triple stores, but in this case we used BigOWLIM. We had two sets of transformed data: data from caTissue and data from caArray. To link the two data sets, we make use of the caTissue and caArray data models stored in Corvus and write a rule that links the Source (biological source) object in caArray to the CellSpecimen object in caTissue if Source.CellLine and CellSpecimen.Label are equivalent. Inferencing was done using a custom rule implemented in the Ontotext's TRREE language, used by BigOWLIM.
Additional file 6 shows the actual rule, which adds the triple Source derived from CellSpecimen to the store. The inverse triple, CellSpecimen derived_by Source is also added.
Data queries and analysis
The query in Additional file 7 returns the caTissue clinical diagnosis using the NCIt concept "Clinical Diagnosis" and the name of the caArray Hybridization it corresponds to. Also available, but not extracted, are: gender, age at diagnosis, ethnicity/race, or any other clinical annotations that are added to a caTissue Suite repository. A Principal Components Analysis is made of the expression data using the PCA module from GenePattern  and the projection is colored with the diagnoses extracted.
James McCusker's and Michael Krauthammer's work was funded by the Yale SPORE in Skin Cancer. Joshua Phillips' work was funded in part by the caBIG® Architecture Workspace.
Alejandra González Beltrán and Anthony Finkelstein are grateful to Cancer Research UK and the UK National Cancer Research Institute Informatics Initiative for support for their research.
This article has been published as part of BMC Bioinformatics Volume 10 Supplement 10, 2009: Semantic Web Applications and Tools for Life Sciences, 2008. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2105/10?issue=S10.
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