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Cloud Computing Harnessed for Cancer Data Analysis

Blue gene supercomputer (


Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore will collect large volumes of cancer data, down to the level of individual cells, using cloud computing to amass and analyze the data. The team of engineering and medical researchers is led by Denis Wirtz, associate director of Johns Hopkins’s Institute for NanoBio Technology, and funded by a $3.75 million grant from National Cancer Institute of National Institute of health (NIH).

The aim of the five-year project is to make it possible for researchers to collect cancer data in sufficient quantities and precision for a better understanding of the differences in behavior of cancer cells on the same type of tissue in different patients. Wirtz and colleagues plan to use a process of characterizing cancer data with high-throughput cell phenotyping.

NIH has made arrangements to store the early data collected in this project on computers at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. Software and equipment used in the high-throughput cell phenotyping process is protected by patents granted to the university.

The process makes use of scanning microscopy to take pictures of the size and shape of cancer cells, then derive information about activity inside the cells, at the genetic level. The database adds anonymized age and gender of the patient, as well as treatments received. “Looked at as a whole, this information can help us identify a ‘signature’ for a certain type of cancer,” says Wirtz. “That gives us a better idea of how it spreads and how it responds to certain drugs.”

Wirtz and Johns Hokins medical researchers Ralph Hruban and Anirban Maitra will begin with data on thousands of patients treated at Johns Hopkins medical center, but they plan to soon add similar data from other major U.S. cancer research centers. The team plans to start with pancreatic cancer, which is particularly aggressive and lethal.

The data stored in the online database is expected to be much more detailed than those produced in traditional biopsy evaluations. Information about a patient’s disease is normally the result of trillions of cells blended together. With the new scanning system, however, the Johns Hopkins researchers will obtain views of single cells from individual patients, even from different parts of the same organ.

Wirtz notes that examining single cells makes it possible for identifying and charcterizing cells that may possess the same genetic makeup, but can still vary in other small ways that affect the behavior of cancer. These minute variations in genetically identical cells, for example, can cause some cells to be vulnerable to a particular cancer drug. “In the end, what matters is the cell properties,” says Wirtz. “That’s what we measure.”

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