How Big Data Could Help Tame Cancer

U.K. cancer scientists say a huge DNA database could help prolong the lives of some patients.
Big data could turn cancer into a "manageable" disease, scientists at one of the main U.K. centers for research in the field, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), said on Tuesday.

A new facility, the Tumor Profiling Unit, has been set up with $4.7 million (£3 million) at the non-profit to explore vast datasets of cancer samples in an effort to better understand how these cells adapt to resist treatment. The Unit was set up by donations from the public, not government money.

The Unit also aims to help make cancers in older patients easier to manage. "For people with advanced disease, it will be a question of managing them better so they survive for much longer -- for many years," said professor Alan Ashworth, the ICR's CEO. "Cancer often appears in people who are old; if we can keep them alive long enough for them to die of something else, then we are turning cancer into a chronic disease." Genetic profiling could also make developing new drugs both quicker and less costly.

[ Is healthcare IT in the U.K. on life support? Read U.K. Health System Needs Major IT Transfusion. ]

But to achieve their goals, the team will need to overcome some substantial technical computing challenges. It's estimated that the genetic codes of just a million cancer patients would take up the same amount of disk space as the whole of YouTube. In addition, test results would need to circumvent stiff privacy and regulatory rules in order to be shared with other researchers and pharma companies.

Researchers also note that transforming cancer from an acute to a chronic condition can only ever be possible with some cancers -- some will always probably prove intractable, no matter how deep their genetic profiles may become.

Of course, such reservations haven't inhibited U.K. national press headline writers. One newspaper, The Daily Mail, has a reputation for publishing a 'cancer cure found' story on a weekly basis and has splashed the headline, 'Cancer will no longer be a death sentence: DNA-based treatment to transform lives within 10 years, say scientists.'

Still, there is real science here. The team says our understanding of how different cancers are caused by genetic triggers is building, and there is already practical genetic profiling of tumors in some cases -- for example, breast cancer patients are tested for a particular variant of the HER2 gene.

What's missing is an expansive DNA database to better identify which genes are responsible for which cancers. This could offer a range of options for clinicians, such as using drugs designed for one type of cancer to treat another type if it's proven that the two share the same genetic cause. Using technology to explore such questions is preferable to performing repeated biopsies on cancer patients; a blood test to examine free-floating cancer DNA from tumors is less invasive and can better scale for deeper analysis.

"Knowledge is accumulating incredibly rapidly," said Ashworth. "Despite the setbacks, most people are optimistic."

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