Cancer is the most complex health challenge we face. There are more than 200 different types of it, for a start; and even that might be putting it too simply. Look closely, and hundreds of cancer types split into millions of specific cases.
At a genetic level, each individual cancer is as unique as the person it affects. There’s no guarantee that the drug that worked for one person’s bowel cancer, for instance, will work for the next. And yet, despite that, our research has helped double cancer survival over the last 40 years. By steadily increasing our understanding of cancer’s intricacies, we’ve been able to make more treatments work for more people.
But there are still big questions about how to make our treatments even better, and our scientists are seeking the answers. Helpfully, we know where a lot of them might be – in our health data. People and cancers are unique, so we need to look at them as directly as possible. By bringing patient data into research, we can start to do that.
To find out more, we spoke to some of our scientists about the ways they’re using patient data to untangle cancer’s complexities and bring tomorrow’s cures closer.
At the heart of the CRUK Scotland Institute is a team of brilliant scientists who specialise in using supercomputers to understand how cancer behaves. Those supercomputers are so important because of what they can do with patient data.
“Data gives us insight into things you can’t see down a microscope,” says Professor Crispin Miller, who leads the team. “It has the potential to [lead to] truly targeted therapies. To find the right therapy for the right person at the right time, that is the goal.”
Microscopes are still useful, but tumours are too diverse and complicated for us to fully understand them just by zooming in on specific areas. Miller’s team are using supercomputers to spot genetic and structural patterns that we can’t see any other way. Whereas microscope images show what cancers look like, researchers can use these patterns to work out why and how they develop.
For Miller, it’s like the difference between looking at the stars and knowing how they got there.
“Biology is exciting,” he says. “The questions of modern cancer research, like how the DNA in one cell can define an entire living person – to me that’s as exciting as understanding the first few microseconds of the Big Bang.”
You need more than a zoom function for that work, too. But when it comes to the universe of cells inside us, things are a little more practical: Miller’s team is trying to understand the past in order to change the future. The patterns they’re looking for contain the information we need to improve our treatment options.
We can only see those patterns thanks to the generosity of the patients who have kindly allowed their doctors to share their anonymised tumour genetic data and scan images with Miller’s team. That information is also helping to train an AI system designed to predict how tumours are likely to respond to treatment. In the years to come, it could help doctors pick the best treatment for each of their patients.
“Data is central to the research we are doing,” explains Miller. “The more tumours we study, the more we understand how they differ from each other and how we can use this information to improve outcomes for people with cancer. I am incredibly grateful to the patients who donate their data and tissue. I couldn’t do my work without it.”