Fast and accurate semantic annotation of bioassays exploiting a hybrid of machine learning and user confirmation

PeerJ. 2014 Aug 14;2:e524. doi: 10.7717/peerj.524. eCollection 2014.


Bioinformatics and computer aided drug design rely on the curation of a large number of protocols for biological assays that measure the ability of potential drugs to achieve a therapeutic effect. These assay protocols are generally published by scientists in the form of plain text, which needs to be more precisely annotated in order to be useful to software methods. We have developed a pragmatic approach to describing assays according to the semantic definitions of the BioAssay Ontology (BAO) project, using a hybrid of machine learning based on natural language processing, and a simplified user interface designed to help scientists curate their data with minimum effort. We have carried out this work based on the premise that pure machine learning is insufficiently accurate, and that expecting scientists to find the time to annotate their protocols manually is unrealistic. By combining these approaches, we have created an effective prototype for which annotation of bioassay text within the domain of the training set can be accomplished very quickly. Well-trained annotations require single-click user approval, while annotations from outside the training set domain can be identified using the search feature of a well-designed user interface, and subsequently used to improve the underlying models. By drastically reducing the time required for scientists to annotate their assays, we can realistically advocate for semantic annotation to become a standard part of the publication process. Once even a small proportion of the public body of bioassay data is marked up, bioinformatics researchers can begin to construct sophisticated and useful searching and analysis algorithms that will provide a diverse and powerful set of tools for drug discovery researchers.

Keywords: Bayesian; Bioassay; Machine learning; Natural language processing; Ontology; Semantic curation.