In recent years, the scientific community has come to think about cancer — and cancer treatment — differently.
Whereas in past decades, cancer was diagnosed, classified and treated according to the specific types of tissues it affected — breast cancer, for example, has traditionally been treated with drugs developed specifically for tumours in the breast — modern medicine takes a decidedly more personalised approach.
Today, explains Dr Warren Kaplan, the Chief of Informatics at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, cancer is thought of as a disease of DNA, rather than something that easily fits into “buckets” based on where in the tissue it originates.
Different treatments for different genetic profiles
“The three billion base pairs that make up our DNA — our genome — make each and every person in the world unique,” says Kaplan. “But this is also what makes each person’s cancer unique.”
By understanding a patient’s genome, doctors can determine the specific combination of drugs that will best suit their patient.
Researchers and scientists at Garvan and all over the globe are working to decode and sequence genomes in order to investigate the genetic makeup of cancers. The end goal, Kaplan explains, is to deviate from a “one size fits all” approach to treatment options. Once genomes are sequenced, it becomes easier for doctors and scientists to construct tailored treatment programs based on patients’ individual genetic profiles.
The benefit of this approach to treatment is twofold, says Kaplan.
“First, tumours with certain genetic profiles may respond to certain anti-cancer drugs better than others,” he says, citing an example of a pancreatic tumour that responds better to a drug traditionally prescribed for breast cancer. “Secondly, this information can also help tailor a patient’s treatment plan. By understanding a patient’s genome, doctors can determine the specific combination of drugs that will best suit their patient and avoid any harmful side effects.”
The role of data
One of the obstacles to this approach, however, is the sheer amount of data it takes to sequence a single person’s genome: about 500 gigabytes. That’s equivalent to streaming about 100 HD movies.
In order to lend a hand – and a byte – Vodafone Foundation has released a mobile app, DreamLab, that crowd-sources data from willing donors. All users have to do is download the app (which is now available on iOS and Android), select a project they want to contribute to, and then charge their phone as they do normally. The app then goes to work downloading small bits of information from the cloud, which helps fuel cancer research such as the work being done by Garvan.
To date, users around the world have taken up the night shift as a ‘cancer researcher,’ and “crunched” about 70% of the first research project, which focuses on comparing genetic profiles of patients with four types of cancer (breast, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic). DreamLab now has 165,000 active users – the more people that use the app, the faster researchers can complete projects which lead to discoveries.
Kaplan has high hopes that this data holds at least a few of the answers for solving cancer.
“We hope that in the future, those diagnosed with cancer will have their genomes sequenced and compared to this library, so that they can benefit from much more effective and accurate assessments of their illness,” he explains. “This way, doctors will be able to develop customised treatment plans that are known to be effective for a patient’s specific genetic profile.”
Disclaimer: Downloading DreamLab uses data. DreamLab can be used when your device is charging and has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.