Striving to Show the Big Picture on Cancer

Posted in GUMC Stories

October 14, 2016 – In an Indian proverb, a blind man touching an elephant develops an incomplete picture of the animal because he only feels one part of it — say, the enormous trunk or the long tasseled tail. For too long, medical professionals haven’t been able to see the totality of cancer, preventing them from treating patients as effectively as possible, according to Louis Weiner, MD, director of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

However, bioinformatics allows doctors to see the elephant in the examining room, according to Subha Madhavan, PhD, director of the Innovation Center for Biomedical Informatics (ICBI) at Georgetown Lombardi. The disconnected parts of the elephant that she sees consist of information stored in servers worldwide on every aspect of cancer including molecular mechanisms, results from clinical trials and treatment outcomes.

At ICBI, Madhavan strives to bring those parts together into a digital ecosystem so users of data can see the whole elephant, from trunk to tail. Connecting all of the clinical and nonclinical information is the essence of precision medicine, which puts big data together to customize individual patient treatment, she says.

To promote precision medicine, Madhavan has developed a series of national conferences. October 14th was the fifth annual Biomedical Informatics Symposium at the Georgetown University Conference Center, bringing together likeminded bioinformatics specialists to talk about the big data that exists but is not accessible, or seen, by all.

Databases of databases

“There will never be a single central database of cancer — that is just not feasible,” says Madhavan. “Everyone is building databases based on the users they support and their organizational expertise – we need to be able to make these systems interoperable so we can collectively move cancer research forward.”

That was the idea behind Georgetown Database of Cancer (G-DOC), a cancer data integration and sharing platform, says Madhavan. Creating the database was one of Weiner’s goals when he came to Georgetown Lombardi and Madhavan has led its development since 2008. G-DOC contains genomic and clinical datasets from more than 10,000 patients treated at Georgetown Lombardi and other collaborating institutions and ties them to prediction of treatment benefit. Through Georgetown Lombardi’s affiliation with MedStar Health and the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, G-DOC has access to one of the largest patient populations available in a health care system.

“the operative words are interoperability and data sharing…”

The symposium showcased bioinformatics advances in precision medicine, health data analytics and related state of the art technologies, and was attended by about 300 bioinformatics specialists from academia, industry and government.  Twenty speakers addressed the symposium in ten sessions.

Keynote addresses were given by:

  • Jacob Corn, PhD, the managing director and scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative and faculty member in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. His center developed the game-changing genetic engineering technique known as CRISPR.
  • Heidi L. Rehm, PhD, FACMG, leads clinical labs at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute that focus on the rapid translation of new genetic discoveries into clinical tests. Her labs also bring novel technologies and software systems into molecular diagnostics to support the integration of genetics into clinical and translational use. Rehm debuted the new session, “Women in Biomedical Informatics,” that Madhavan plans to carry on in future symposiums.

A discussion about the Genomic Data Commons included an address about how bioinformatics can help achieve President Obama’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative, led by Vice President Joe Biden. “Among the goals of the moonshot is for the cancer community to work together and share information that can drive development of novel treatments,” says Madhavan.  “The operative word is ‘share’ and I think that this is exactly what this annual symposium is all about.”

Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications