One of the most promising cutting edge areas of mesothelioma research is happening in cyberspace. Researchers are combining new and better techniques for decoding the genetic makeup of each patient’s tumor with big data to tailor custom treatments and improve outcomes and survival.
What is Big Data?
If you’re not a computer geek (and most of us are not), the concept of big data can be hard to get your head around. Big data refers to sets of information that are so enormous they can’t be analyzed by a regular computer or computer program.
As scientists have gotten better and better at collecting and decoding genetic information, it has become possible to determine the genetic makeup of a mesothelioma tumor. Because DNA is so complex, the data from even one mesothelioma patient can take up a huge amount of computer space.
When researchers want to analyze data from thousands or even millions of cancer patients, they have to look at innovative ways to harness enough computing power to sort through a huge amount of data. According to the cancer research community, cancer genotyping is very important in identifying possible “predetermined genetic aberrations.” As genotyping improves, the amounts of data on different types of cancers and different tumors is expected to grow even larger. Big data offers a way to examine all this information and use it to advance mesothelioma research.
Mesothelioma Research and Individual Treatment Plans
There are at least 200 different types of cancer. It turns out, however, that there are many more variations within each type of cancer. Though two mesothelioma patients may have similar symptoms, their tumors could be caused by different genetic mutations and grow in different ways. Understanding those differences allows oncologists to give each patient the most effective mesothelioma treatment targeted more precisely to his or her tumor.
Already, genetic analysis of mesothelioma tumors has allowed doctors to prescribe promising new immunotherapy drugs that help the body’s immune system fight back against the growth of cancerous tumors. These therapies can be a gut punch to a tumor. They target the mechanism a particular tumor uses to get around your body’s natural defenses and brings one of our strongest tools, the human immune system, into the fight.
Big data promises to put even more information at the fingertips of mesothelioma research and treatment teams. By collecting data from more patients, big data projects will allow doctors to find more genetic matches and prescribe treatments that have been shown to work other patients with the same type of tumor.
Mesothelioma Research and Cancer-Linq
An organization that is working to use the power of big data to improve cancer treatment outcomes is Cancer-Linq. The nonprofit organization is a subsidiary of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
One of the problems with mesothelioma research is that only a small number of patients are part of clinical trials. Throughout the cancer patient community, only 3% of patients enroll in trials, which means that the scientific community is missing a chance to collect data on the rest. By pulling together data on as many cancer patients as possible through Cancer-Linq, oncologists hope to better understand and analyze treatments and outcomes.
One term for this type of treatment is precision medicine. Imagine this: your doctor takes a biopsy of your mesothelioma tumor. The lab does a genetic analysis of your cancer. Then your doctor compares the genome (the characterization and identification of the DNA or RNA sequences of your cancer cells) of your tumor with a large database of mesothelioma patients. She finds patients with similar tumors and looks at what treatments worked and didn’t work for those patients.
Over time, this type of mesothelioma research will lead to a better understanding of which treatments are most effective for individual patients. It may sound like science fiction now, but these cutting edge treatments are not far in the future.
Mesothelioma Research and the Collaborative Cancer Cloud
The Collaborative Cancer Cloud (CCC), which is supported by computer chip maker Intel, works with a growing network of hospitals and research institutions. Because the CCC will collect extremely large amounts of data, the resources of the cloud will give it more power to crunch the numbers.
Cloud computing is a term for storing files remotely rather than on your local computer. If you use Google docs or use Apple’s backup for your smartphone, you have used cloud computing. The cloud is a great way to handle huge datasets, such as those needed for mesothelioma research, and to analyze large amounts of genetic information. Rather than spending lots of money to buy and maintain (and grow) mainframe computers at a mesothelioma research institution, cloud computing gives researchers access to a flexible amount of capacity to crunch the big data on cancer. That capacity can easily be scaled up or down because the cloud is made of many computers in different locations that can be called on for computing power when they are needed.
The CCC’s goal is to reduce the time it takes between taking a biopsy and finding the best treatment option. By 2020, the Collaborative Cancer Cloud hopes to have harnessed enough big data to reduce that time to 24 hours or less.
Someday soon, mesothelioma patients may be able to go in for a biopsy then start on a precision targeted treatment plan the next day. That is a day that many mesothelioma research scientists look forward to.
Apps for Mesothelioma Research
Many other organizations are using big data to move mesothelioma research (and research on all types of cancer) forward. The German Cancer Research Center, which is Germany’s biggest medical research institution, partnered with data hosting company Datameter to apply more computing power to analyzing the DNA of cancer patients. Through innovative big data applications that brought in more computer power, the time to get a genetic snapshot of a patient’s tumor was reduced from one or two days to as little as five minutes.
Another innovative project is a smartphone app called DreamLab. Anyone can download the app, which was created by the Vodafone Foundation. While users are sleeping, the app lends the computing power on their phones to research organizations. A collaborative of Australian research institutions is using this network to help it map the genomes of cancerous tumors.
By harnessing the power of the tiny little computers we all carry around in our pockets, DreamLab has shortened the time it will take to complete this research by nine months. With more users, scientists believe they could shorten the time to compile the big data on mesothelioma research and other malignant tumors by three years.
Big data offers exciting possibilities for mesothelioma research and treatment. And, as DreamLab shows, every one of us can help out in our own small way.