How big data can help the fight against leukemia

It’s estimated that over 100,000 people a year are diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia, or CML.  Advances in treatment mean that roughly 90% of patients under 65 now survive for five years or more.  Despite this, the disease remains incurable, and patients have to live with the considerable side effects of their treatment.

Not only is this challenging for the patient, but treatment costs between £40,000 and £70,000 per patient a year, so is a considerable expense for health services to shoulder.

Crucial to effectively treating leukemia is a better understanding of the mutated leukemia stem cell that kicked the disease off.  Researchers need to better appreciate how they react to treatments, and indeed how they interact with the genes around them.

Fighting leukemia with big data

A team from the University of Glasgow believe big data can play a crucial role.  Genome-scale technology allows scientists to measure how every gene in the genome behaves simultaneously, even down to the level of a single cell.

The team have developed an online data portal, called LEUKomics, which aims to pool CML gene expression data from labs around the world.  The portal strives to reduce the bottleneck surrounding the use of big data in the analysis of CML.  The team inspect each dataset for quality and extract all of the information required for gene expression.  This allows for rapid interrogation of the data without requiring specialized bioinformatics approaches.

Suffice to say, the platform also enables for that kind of industrial-level computational effort, and the team believe that the fact that CML is caused by a single mutation makes it an attractive disease model for cancer stem cells.  The relatively small sample numbers in current datasets limits the potential of research however.

As with so much, the more samples researchers have to work with, the more able they are to detect the kind of subtle changes that could support crucial breakthroughs in understanding.  By bringing together all of the CML datasets currently available from around the world, the team hope to support this.

The portal is currently up and running in the public domain, with the team now hoping to raise awareness of it, and provide support to researchers hoping to utilize it in their work.  They are confident that it can make a big contribution to the field, especially if it can attract extra funding to support its growth, with plans already in place to incorporate data from other kinds of leukemia.

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