A new database based at the University of Leeds could hold the key to saving the lives of patients with types of blood cancers known as non-Hodgkin lymphomas. It is another example of how ‘big data’ could lead to advances in personalised treatment of cancer.
The charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research has granted £250,000 to find pioneering ways to match new patients to the best treatments. The world-leading database stores cancer cell samples and anonymous medical records from non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients treated in the Yorkshire region. Connecting the wealth of information about a patient’s disease with how they respond to treatment will guide how similar patients are treated in the future.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is diagnosed in around 10,000 people a year in the UK and normally appears as a solid tumour in glands called lymph nodes. It is an incredibly diverse group of cancers that can be divided into up to 40 different diseases, each treated separately.
Even within traditional categories such as Burkitt lymphoma and diffuse large B cell lymphoma, chances of long term survival vary from patient to patient. Different genetic faults in an individual patient’s lymphoma cells, for instance, can dictate whether certain drugs will be effective or not.
It is expected that the data mining techniques, developed by researchers at the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences, could revolutionise how these patients are treated. They will cast aside traditional disease categories, which were defined when scientists couldn’t look at cells at a molecular level in the way that is possible now, and group patients together differently.
Doctors will be able to search the database for past patients whose lymphoma has similarities at a biological level to their newly diagnosed patients, regardless of traditional disease category. Knowing which of the various possible treatments were most successful in similar patients in the past will inform treatment for current patients.
David Westhead, Professor of Bioinformatics at the University of Leeds, who is leading the study, said: “It is very important that what we learn from treating lymphoma patients can be used in the future. We believe this new approach will improve on the current practice of assigning patients to rigid disease categories that in reality are overlapping.
“It is increasingly clear that cancer in general and lymphoma in particular is a highly variable disease. Individuals previously diagnosed in the same broad categories may have diseases that are quite different when you look at the fundamental biology of their cancers. This database enables us to take a step towards more individualised treatment.”
Dr Matt Kaiser, Head of Research at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “We already know that lymphomas are highly variable in their prognosis and response to standard treatments. By intelligently linking the patient’s biology with clinical outcome, future patients will benefit from smarter diagnosis, more accurate prognosis and a more tailored treatment course. This is a pioneering approach that may have ramifications for how we view and treat all cancers.”