Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Collecting Cancer Cell Data

Johns Hopkins researchers are applying the concept of storing medical data in the cloud in hopes of predicting and improving cancer patient treatments and outcomes. The project is supported by a new $3.75 million National Cancer Institute grant to go to the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology over a five year period.

The project was launched because researchers now realize that cancer cells affecting the same type of tissue can behave differently in different patients. The data collected will help doctors make better predictions on how a patient’s illness will progress and what type of treatment will be most effective.

To help doctors prepare a more personalized medical prognosis and treatment plan, Johns Hopkins has assembled experts in cancer and engineering to begin characterizing and storing cancer data collected through a process called high-throughput cell phenotyping. The software and hardware used in the high-throughput cell phenotyping process is protected by patents obtained through the university’s Technology Transfer Office

“We use scanning microscopy to take picture of the size and shape of cancer cells,” said Denis Wirtz, leading the research and Associate Director of the university’s Institute for NanoBioTechnology. He also directs the Johns Hopkins Physical Sciences-Oncology Center.

According to Wirtz, “Notes are made on the age and gender of the patient and any treatment received. Looked at as a whole, this information can help us identify a signature for a certain type of cancer which gives us a better idea of how it spreads and how it responds to certain drugs. 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.”

Typically information on the patient’s disease is obtained by averaging the results from trillions of cells that have been blended together. However, with the new scanning system, researchers will obtain views of individual cells retrieved from individual patients even from different parts of the same organ.

As Wirtz explained, “This ability to examine single cells is important because scientists have discovered that even cells that possess the identical genetic makeup can vary in other small ways that can affect the behavior of cancer.”

According to Anirban Maitra, Professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins, “This technology may provide a way to centralize specimen data, images, and analysis in a way that hasn’t been done before and we will be using the information to find better ways to treat disease.”

The Johns Hopkins team will soon collect similar data from other major U.S. cancer research centers also supported by NIH with the initial focus to be on pancreatic cancer. Other types of disease, including breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer will be addressed in the near future. Early data is being stored on computers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory under an arrangement funded by NIH.

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