Cloud technology is now being used to collect detailed information from thousands of cancer samples with the goal of helping doctors make better predictions about how a patient’s illness will progress and what type of treatment will be most effective.

This project, which is supported by a new $3.75 million Nation Cancer Institute (NCI) grant, was launched because researchers now realize that cancer cells that affect the same type of tissue can behave differently in different patients. Prostate cancer may grow rapidly in one patient but at a glacial pace in another. A drug that is effective at killing a tumor in one patient may be useless or even harmful in the next patient.

To help doctors prepare a more personalized medical prognosis and treatment plan, experts in cancer and engineering have been assembled by Johns Hopkins. The team is using high-throughput cell phenotyping to characterize and store cancer data.

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“We use scanning microscopy to take pictures of the size and shape of cancer cells,” said Denis Wirtz, PhD, of Johns Hopkins. “We also extract information about what is happening inside the cells and at the genetic level. We make notes of the age and gender of the patient and any treatment received. Looked at as a whole, this information can help us identify a ‘signature’ for a certain type of cancer. That gives us a better idea of how it spreads and how it responds to certain drugs. The long-range goal is to make this data available through the Internet to physicians who are diagnosing and treating cancer patients around the world.”

The research team is looking at a database with material from the files of thousands of cancer patients who have been evaluated and treated at Johns Hopkins. The patients’ personal information has been deleted, but the remaining medical case data allows researchers to trace the course of the disease from initial testing through treatment and outcome. The team will soon collect similar data from other major US cancer research centers.

The initial focus will be pancreatic cancer, which is particularly aggressive and lethal. In the near future, the research will address other types of disease, including breast and prostate cancer. The online database will differ from traditional biopsy evaluations, since it will use the new scanning system to obtain views of individual cells retrieved from individual patients, even from different parts of the same organ.

Wirtz explained that the ability to examine single cells is important, because even cells that possess identical genetic makeup can vary in other small ways that affect the behavior of cancer. For example, these tiny variations can cause some to be vulnerable to a particular cancer drug.

“We’ve come to realize that it is the heterogeneity—the diversity of cells that have different characteristics—that is important in evaluating a cancer case,” Wirtz said. “In the end, what matters is the cell properties. That’s what we measure.”