Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 66

Cancer care meets big data: SA’s
latest treatment breakthrough
Two South African chemists have made a breakthrough in cancer research
that paves the way for early diagnosis and specialised treatment based on
each cancer’s unique genetic expression pattern.
Early diagnosis is critical for cancer survival; and the
discovery made by Dr Kevin Naidoo, DST/NRF SARChl
Chair in Scientific Computing in the Department of
Chemistry at UCT and Dr Jahanshah Ashkani, also of the
department, could therefore have a major impact on the
prognosis for cancer patients.
The study, published in the latest issue of Scientific
Reports, focused on six common cancer types – breast,
colon, lung, kidney, ovarian and brain – and found that
each of these has a unique genetic expression pattern
that can be used for accurate early diagnosis; and more
specifically, for specialised treatment.
Naidoo and Ashkani used statistical classification
algorithms on large volumes of tumour gene-expression
data. By analysing these vast quantities of data, they
found that the GT-expression pattern – or the way in
which complex carbohydrates are built – can be used
to classify different cancer types early on. Moreover, the
expression patterns are specific enough that variations
can be identified within each cancer type, which can
then guide the treatment route.
typically killed cancer cells, newer, targeted therapies –
which may form part of the treatment regimen, rather
than being used in isolation – prevent the proliferation of
the cells.
Naidoo and Ashkani’s discovery underlines the
importance of using computational big data analytics
in biomedical sciences and the developing field of
personalised medicine.
“We hope that the field of computational data
analytics in biomedicine is able to integrate fully
into clinical research in South Africa, as is the world
trend,” says Naidoo. “We hope that our research
results inspire this structural change in clinical
research in South Africa, and that it will lead to the
growth and development of ‘precision medicine’
that is being shown worldwide to result in improved
patient care and greater survival times in cancer.”
“The most immediate application of our finding is that
we can detect the specific subtypes of a cancer type;
and we have shown this for breast cancer,” says Naidoo.
“For example, we found distinct patterns for aggressive
types of breast cancer, such as what’s commonly
termed ‘triple-negative’ breast cancer.”
Naidoo is now leading a multi-laboratory
collaboration, which will include scientists in
pathology and human genetics at the UCT medical
campus and the Centre for Proteomics and
Genomics Research, to analyse the blood samples
of South African patients. The aim is to develop a
low-cost gene-expression tool for breast cancer –
the most common cancer affecting South African
women – which can form the basis of a routinelyused early-diagnostic process.
This application is crucial. Just as early diagnosis has a
strong influence on the patient’s prognosis, so too does
the choice of treatment. While older cancer treatments
Story adapted from article by Marelise van der
Merwe, Daily Maverick. Image of cancer cells by the
National Cancer Institute, Wikimedia Commons.

Daily MaverickWikimedia Commons

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