Research by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research has revealed a potential new way to group cancers based on their DNA ‘signatures’. This discovery, among others, is based on data analysed through Project Decode on the DreamLab app, which was created by Garvan and The Vodafone Foundation in Australia and fuelled by the growing phenomenon of citizen science.

Researchers have found a new way to ‘cluster’ cancers together, grouping individual cancers in a way that could indicate the best treatment for each one. While the findings are preliminary, it is hoped that this new way of classifying cancers could bring the medical world a step closer to realising the potential of personalised medicine – providing treatment and monitoring that’s targeted to each individual patient.

“With one in two Australians set to be touched by cancer directly at some stage in their life, we see Garvan’s research as vital to improving the health of the nation,” said Megan Retka-Tidd, Head of The Vodafone Foundation. “Garvan’s initial findings are truly exciting and point to the power of handheld technology, combined with leading scientists, to help speed up cancer research. Collectively, DreamLab users donated sixty million hours to Project Decode to speed up this research.”

DreamLab works by harnessing the idle processing power of users’ smartphones to solve complex cancer problems and send the results back to Garvan for analysis. Over 300,000 people have downloaded DreamLab and joined the ‘citizen science’ movement.

Dr Mark Pinese, Senior Research Officer at Garvan, is encouraged by this new approach to cancer research and what these initial findings could mean for future cancer treatment. “By using the power of DreamLab to crunch genomic data from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), our team of researchers uncovered a new way of looking at mutations in cancer,” said Dr Pinese. “This is an interesting finding as in the clinic it could help us determine which type of cancer a patient has, and the best treatment for that cancer. This is a key goal of personalised medicine.”

From body parts to DNA signatures

Traditionally, people think of cancer as being specific to a body part – such as lung cancer or breast cancer. However, researchers now know that it is predominantly the DNA changes in an individual’s cancer, not its tissue of origin, which sheds light on how to best treat and manage it.

The Garvan team matched the gene changes in 3750 cancers with the corresponding protein changes and interactions across a massive network of about 20,000 proteins.  This revealed 141 different clusters, which were agnostic of the cancer’s tissue of origin.

Dr Swetansu Pattnaik (left) Dr Catherine Vacher (right)

Dr Catherine Vacher and Dr Swetansu Pattnaik are part of the brains trust behind this discovery and are co-first authors of the paper. Dr Vacher said “We see a future where one day a genomic test could classify a patient’s cancer and give their oncologist insight into the best treatments for that patient.”

While Dr Swetansu Pattnaik stated that “Citizen Science, such as the contribution of thousands of people to DreamLab, is truly astounding. While these are early findings, we look forward to the global medical community poring over, critiquing and adding to them.”

The full findings – including the project’s algorithm and datasets – can be found on biology pre-print server bioRxiv, here.

Project Demystify launches on DreamLab

Coinciding with the release of the initial Project Decode findings, the next research project – Project Demystify has launched on DreamLab. This new project seeks to understand, or connect the dots, between physical human traits – hair colour, height, blood pressure, and, at times, symptoms of disease – and their genetic basis.

If you want to help speed up cancer research, download the DreamLab app from the App Store and Google Play Store now.

Terms and conditions

Terms and Conditions. 1: A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.

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Meg Retka-Tidd

Senior Manager, Partners & Programs, Vodafone Foundation

Meg Retka-Tidd,
Senior Manager, Partners & Programs, Vodafone Foundation

Working closely with our partners The Garvan Institute and Hello Sunday Morning, Meg helps the Vodafone Foundation live out its day-to-day purpose of using technology to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians.

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