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Tapping into the Cancer-Fighter Collective for Treatment

The Cancer Institute of New Jersey is working with others to develop software that lets doctors and researchers compare cases and treatment outcomes



Courtesy of IBM

In an effort to improve cancer care, researchers today announced plans to create a giant database designed to allow oncologists and scientists to share vital information. The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) and Rutgers University, both in New Brunswick, along with IBM are developing a computer system that allows physicians and researchers worldwide to tap into the latest developments in cancer research and treatment; they envision it as a tool that will help doctors tailor the best possible therapies for their patients and let scientists track the success—or failure—of previous research.

In particular, the system will feature a digital database of microarrays of cancerous tissue against which new samples can be compared. This will let physicians and researchers study how similar cancers have been treated and which therapies worked best.

Such a database will help doctors determine the best way to proceed once a malignancy has been discovered, says the project's lead investigator, David Foran, director of the Center for Biomedical Imaging & Informatics and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at U.M.D.N.J–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.

Tissue microarrays allow researchers to test slivers of many biopsies at one time. "It's extremely valuable in research and discovery in terms of identifying what proteins come into play at what stage of the disease and what brings about the onset of the disease," Foran says.

The new decision-support system will extend CINJ's Help Defeat Cancer project, launched in July 2006 to develop software and algorithms for improving cancer detection in tissue samples. The initial phase of the project, which has since received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), netted a large database that allows doctors and researchers to compare various treatment options for patients with breast and colon as well as head and neck cancers.

The developing decision-support software will take the process a step further, allowing physicians and scientists to analyze and classify digitized tissue microarray images of the specimens and contrast them with the more than 100,000 samples already in the system's database. The Ohio State University Medical Center is set to modify the software so it can run on a grid of computers that can be accessed by researchers. CINJ and its partners plan to expand the system to include information about other forms of cancer, although no timetable has been set.

Foran and his colleagues plan to share these technologies with other cancer research facilities around the nation through use of mirrored sites at CINJ and The Ohio State University (O.S.U.), and with the support of the NIH's Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid program (caBIG). CINJ and O.S.U. will initially use grid technology to provide access to the software and database to cancer researchers at their institutions, plus Arizona State University, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Access will be expanded as the project progresses.

During its initial phase, Help Defeat Cancer used computing horsepower from IBM's World Community Grid to create the database of expression patterns that the decision-support system will access. The World Community Grid is a virtual supercomputer that draws its computing resources from unused processing power donated by thousands of volunteers worldwide who make a portion of their PCs available to the grid. IBM established the World Community Grid in November 2004 to deliver computing resources to science and research projects that otherwise would not have the means to advance, says Robin Willner, IBM's vice president of global community initiatives.

In addition to this research project, the grid has hosted eight others mostly in the biomedical field, including those trying to develop treatments for HIV/AIDS, dengue fever and West Nile virus. IBM is donating a high-performance P6 570 Series Class server and a storage system to CINJ to provide an information technology infrastructure that will share the workload of running the new software with computers based at Ohio State.

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