Cancer Data Science Pulse

The Cancer Data Science Pulse blog provides insights on trends, policies, initiatives, and innovation in the data science and cancer research communities from professionals dedicated to building a national cancer data ecosystem that enables new discoveries and reduces the burden of cancer.

The recent weeks have been momentous as the high-performance computing (HPC) community embraced the challenge of precision medicine. The theme of this year's leading international supercomputing conference, SC16, was "HPC Matters" and it was evident that HPC matters to precision medicine and that precision medicine matters to the high-performance computing community.

These days there seems to be a lot of talk about atlases for cancer. Most of us are familiar with The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), the long-running effort which, over the past decade, sequenced genomes from thousands of tumor samples covering dozens of cancer types. TCGA catalogued the complex patterns of gene mutations underlying tumors, implicated numerous new cancer genes, and is generally viewed as a resounding success.

Scientific discovery involves collecting and analyzing data, and communicating new knowledge arising therefrom. What happens, though, when someone wants to repeat an experiment, or build on an existing approach? For this to happen, there needs to be sufficient information in the public domain and data that is accessible and understandable to the scientist.

In recent years, Challenges have become a popular way to engage and motivate the research and innovation communities to solve difficult problems. Challenges are open competitions where communities are presented with specific and often difficult problems to solve. Participants are given guidelines and test data, and are challenged to compete to find the best solution. Open competition encourages innovative thinking, provides for broad participation, allows funders to set ambitious goals, and is a cost-effective way to encourage collaboration and generate novel solutions.

The cost of DNA sequencing has dropped more than one million-fold over the last decade, making it increasingly possible to discover the genetic basis of cancer and response to treatment.

NCI has launched the Genomic Data Commons (GDC), a system that will promote sharing of genomic and clinical data between researchers and facilitate precision medicine in oncology. The GDC was created to centralize, standardize, and broaden access to data from NCI programs such as The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and its pediatric equivalent, Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET).

"We are on the cusp of breakthroughs that will save lives, benefit all of humanity. But we have to work together." Vice President Joe Biden's words at the American Association for Cancer Research conference resonate as a clear call to action. When we collaborate and share our expertise, the cancer informatics community can bring a formidable wealth of knowledge and crucial skills to drive and facilitate cancer research.

The Seven Bridges Cancer Genomics Cloud (CGC) is one of three pilot systems funded by the National Cancer Institute with the aim of co-localizing massive genomics datasets, like The Cancer Genomics Atlas (TCGA), alongside secure and scalable computational resources for analysis.

To kick off the recent Cancer Informatics for Cancer Centers (CI4CC) Spring Symposium, we had the pleasure of organizing a workshop about "The Role of Academic Technology Development in Cancer Research." The goal of the workshop was to discuss the role of academic informatics technology in cancer research, with an emphasis on technology developed through the Information Technology for Cancer Research (ITCR) program.

Armed with sufficient data across very large populations, it seems plausible that a learning healthcare system can emerge. But what do we have to do to get there?