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How hospitals in the US are using big data analytics to research paediatric cancer

Byron Connolly | Feb. 12, 2015
Five hospitals partner with Dragon Master Foundation to raise awareness and make data more accessible to scientists who are unlocking the mysteries of lethal childhood diseases.

Resnick said databases need to be very scalable. Around 100 terabytes of data is stored for use in pilot projects and he expects that number to rise to petabytes or even larger as infrastructure is used to do studies across many disease spaces.

"For us that's another level of partnership -- what we do in paediatric cancer research of brain tumours can be leveraged for neuroblastoma, leukaemia, or any other paediatric disease because they face the same challenges that we do," he said.

Currently, Dragon Master and the hospitals are trying to encourage researchers who are not interested in paediatric brain tumours to work on the data to make it more accessible and expand its reach.

"It turns out that when you begin to look at paediatric brain tumours, you identify mutations or alterations that identify certain processes ... which may be relevant to other cancers and disease settings in ways that we couldn't have predicted," said Resnick.

"We want to be able to recruit those who are interested in those processes to work alongside us."

The organisations are currently working on a pilot project that analyses and compares mutations in diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an incurable childhood brain stem tumour, and fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a disease where muscle, tendons and ligaments are gradually replaced by bone.

Mutations that occur in DIPG also occur in FOP, said Resnick.

"Somehow the pathology between these diseases overlap. They have the exact same mutation -- one of them occurs in the germ line, meaning the patient is born with the mutation, or the mutation is acquired in the process of the cancer forming for reasons that we don't know," he said.

Resnick said this finding highlights the tremendous need for data dissemination and access, and collaborative platforms that enable people to share and work on data together when they are studying the genomics of cancer.

Working with Dragon Master supports opportunities to make these discoveries, he said. But data analysis needs to happen at a much more rapid pace globally, he said.

"It's clear that the analysis of data is still in its infancy -- meaning there are still many ways to analyse the data and not one universal right way to do it," he said.

He argues that researchers should gravitate towards paediatric data -- which is not as accessible as adult data -- to figure out how to analyse data better.

"I think if we do that people will make discoveries that they would not have made otherwise," he said. "Again, it comes back to the need to create infrastructure that makes data more accessible."

Dragon Master also wants to attract people outside the medical field, 'data geeks' who are working with big data in other industries to see if analysis techniques they are using could be applied to the initiative, said Haddock.


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