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A Look Into the Future: How to Turn a Wealth of Data Into Better Treatments for Patients

May 1, 2014

Time has flown and this is already my last post. I want to take the opportunity to look into the future and explain with a little more detail the new directions I see for the research field, the Centre for Lymphoid Cancer and my own laboratory.

In the last decade, we have generated an exciting wealth of data for lymphoid cancer, describing changes on the molecular level. From this, we have started to “distill” very important genes and mechanisms that cause lymphoma. As I mentioned in my second blog post, we have described many of the “spelling errors” in cancer genomes.

However, it is one thing to describe errors and another to understand the implications and to know how to act accordingly. Driven by the technological revolution in the field of genomics, there now exists a huge backlog of tasks with too few people to comprehensively analyze the existing data. Researchers must also choose the right approaches to analyze the data – we have to ask the right questions to produce meaningful progress. I like to describe this process as “data mining” as it highlights that the data already exists, but we have to search for the gems and real value in it.

I want to illustrate the process with a final example: using next generation sequencing, our research group has recently discovered a number of genome mutations in subgroups of lymphomas that explain why cancer cells are capable of escaping our own body’s immune system.

Unfortunately, and to the detriment of affected patients, cancer cells have found multiple ways to escape, including lowering or inactivating the ability of normal immune cells to recognize and kill the tumour cells. We found that some of the causal events for this “immune escape” mechanism are the rearrangement of chromosomes in lymphoma cells. Coming back to the “backlog of data”, the full potential of this finding is not yet reached and a lot of data remains to be fully analyzed.

There is reason for hope, though: first, now that we have identified the general mechanism, we can design our follow-up research and data mining activities in a very targeted way. Second, we can start investigating how to therapeutically counteract what the mutations have introduced to the tumour cells (“drug development”). And third, we can develop clinical tests based on the mutational findings that identify patients that will benefit most from these novel therapeutic approaches (“precision medicine”).

Encouragingly, some of the drugs that might counteract the immune escape of lymphoma cells are already right at our fingertips, and it is just a matter of bringing the right pieces of information and people together that are committed to curing these lymphoma subtypes.

Although there are many more stories to tell, I think that this is a good point to end my post on this positive note. To perform successful research, it all comes down to commitment and having the right partners! I want to thank the BC Cancer Foundation for giving me the opportunity to communicate my research and thoughts with you.


Christian Steidl