This is why researchers like clinician-scientist Professor Neil Watkins of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research are determined to take advantage of the DreamLab app, which uses your smartphone’s computing power to solve cancer research problems faster.
The app, developed by The Vodafone Foundation, takes genomic data from lung and several other types of cancer – including melanoma, brain, sarcoma, ovarian, breast, prostate and pancreatic – and compares the information, to find similarities or differences in those types of cancer. The hope is that in comparing cancer types, someday clinicians like Watkins will be able to treat patients differently – an especially important concept for those suffering from lung cancer.
Why there’s no lung cancer prevention – yet
Lung cancer is currently responsible for 1.59 million deaths worldwide and is the most common cause of cancer deaths in Australia. In fact, it is estimated that 12,203 Australians will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016.
Despite the high number of lung cancer cases, lung cancer research lags far behind other cancers – partly because of limited access to affected human tissues, which is only possible when someone goes in for surgery – and in lung cancer that’s only 15% of all patients. The current five-year survival rate for lung cancer patients is between 15-25%.
“We rarely get a decent sample because people with the disease never have surgery. This has been a huge, frustrating problem and one of the issues we’re trying to get around,” he said.
In such a bleak research landscape, it’s difficult for scientists to forge a path ahead.
Building the lung cancer “family tree”
But according to Watkins, giving people the option now to support lung cancer via DreamLab may be the solution he has been after.
Since his early days as a self-described goatee-wearing goth respiratory doctor working in Perth, Western Australia, Watkins was always interested in both the story – and the dire outcomes – of his lung cancer patients.
“I’m into lost causes, and in those days lung cancer seemed like a lost cause. No one wanted to work on it because nothing worked…I’ve actually worked in many other cancers as well. I’ve worked on brain, breast, colon, but lung just has a persistent fascination, and it’s also this major public health problem no matter what we do with smoking prevention, we just can’t get rid of it. It’s a difficult challenge scientifically and medically.”
He admits that he was a sceptic of genomics until he spent time using the technology to understand how cancer works, and his questions became more and more basic. Watkins believes DreamLab’s ability to speed up DNA sequencing of cancer genomes will aid his existing research to help answer “really old, frustrating questions” about this notorious disease.
“New genomic technologies will let us start to drill down on some really obvious questions we don’t understand about lung cancer. What causes it? As it spreads through the chest, what are the genomic mechanisms that make that happen?”
Admitting his research is one of the biggest consumers of computing power at the Garvan Institute due to its complexity, Watkins said DreamLab will really help speed up the research process.
“Rather than sequencing the genomes of a thousand patients, we want to sequence the genomes of 20 patients, and pull it down to the simplest components to ask some basic questions about what we think we know about the disease and what it actually does. Secondly, we want to follow the family tree of these tumours. We have to drill right down and sequence at incredible depth to understand. So that is not only expensive, but it can chew up a huge amount of computer resources, which is where Vodafone Foundation’s DreamLab comes in.”
Treating the treatments
Watkins plans to use DreamLab to undertake specific research into existing treatments that are given to patients who don’t go into surgery. He explained that while lung cancer patients end up receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the existing treatments don’t often work very well. Currently, these remaining patients that are put through chemotherapy have a five-year survival rate of around 5-10% – even after years of treatment.
“There is a huge opportunity to improve how we deliver standard treatments, as well as find new ones,” he said.
At the same time, he believes the research will be able to identify if there is a possibility to predict whether a person’s tumour would respond to treatment, particularly knowing that lung cancer patients are also often being treated for other related diseases such as emphysema and heart disease.
Immunotherapy – which involves waking up the immune system to attack the tumour – has been the only treatment to date that shows early signs of “promising results.” It’s a treatment, Watkins says, has been working – perhaps rather ironically – in smokers and patients who have previously undergone chemotherapy.
Uncovering the layers
Additionally, despite a considerable drop in the number of smokers in Australia over the past two decades, the number of lung cancer patients continue to remain significantly high. This is because reformed smokers have a seriously higher risk of developing cancer – more so than non-smokers.
However, the reality is that lung cancer affects non-smokers, too, but due to the lack of research, there is currently minimal explanation behind why. Watkins said this is another area of opportunity for him to carry out some additional research.
“As smoking starts to disappear, we’re going to understand more about what other things in our environment causes lung cancer… That’s one of the things we’re interested in with genomics, because one of the things we can look at is the pattern of mutation in tumours, so we can understand what chemicals or events occurred during the lifetime of a tumour that have caused it to grow… There is a strong smoking characteristic that we can see, but there are other patterns emerging that could help us to understand where else it’s coming from.”
Keeping an open mind
While Watkins’s main focus is to find answers to all of the questions he has about lung cancer, he warns that it’s also important to keep an open mind as part of the process.
“If you set out to find a new treatment or cure, or answer a specific question, you actually never end up answering the question,” he said.
By going back to the basic questions about how lung cancer works, he says, we may be surprised by the findings.
For instance, a new protein therapy was recently discovered as a by-product of his wider research into lung cancer, which could someday improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Clinical trials of the new therapy are expected to begin at the end of 2017.
Being a sceptic, it turns out, may help uncover the key to lung cancer. And with added help from DreamLab, it gives us renewed hope for a cancer-free future.
Download the new DreamLab app now, and help solve cancer while you sleep.
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. More Terms and Conditions, here.
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