Cancer “Cloud” for More Effective Treatment

November 6, 2012
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This graphic depicts stained slides of ovarian cancer tissue sections that were analyzed using custom software to extract form and shape features of many cells rapidly. The distribution of the features is then correlated with clinical outcomes, such as survival, drug response and drug resistance. (Source: Denis Wirtz/Johns Hopkins University)

In a major move toward the individualized treatment of cancer, Johns Hopkins researchers have announced plans to expand efforts to characterize and store cancer data using “cloud” technology in order to make the information available to physicians worldwide.

Under a $3.75-million National Cancer Institute grant, Johns Hopkins has assembled a team of experts in cancer and engineering, led by Denis Wirtz, associate director of the university’s Institute for NanoBioTechnology, to build upon use of a patented process called high-throughput cell phenotyping to characterize and store detailed data from thousands of cancer cell samples. The purpose of the database is to help doctors make better predictions about how a patient’s illness will progress and what type of treatment will be most effective.

“The long-range goal is to make this data available through the Internet to physicians who are diagnosing and treating cancer patients around the world,” Wirtz says.

In recent years, reserachers have come to understand that cancer cells affecting the same type of tissue can behave different in different patients. Prostate cancer may grow rapidly in one patient, but expand at a glacial pace in another. A drug that kills a tumor in one patient may be useless or even harmful in the next patient.

The initial data, gleened from files of thousands of cancer patients evaluated and treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital (with all patients’ personal data deleted), allows doctors to trace the course of disease from initial testing through treatment and outcome and see patterns about cells’ behavior. The team will collect similiar data from other major U.S. cancer research centers that are also supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Much as storing music on distant computers via “cloud technology” makes songs available to many people, this project will provide a way to centralize specimen data, images and analysis of cancer cell data in a new way. The initial focus will be on pancreatic cancer, which is particularly aggressive and lethal. Other types of the disease, including breast and prostate cancer, will be addressed in the near future.

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