How custom database software could help cure cancer

Posted by Justin Hesser on November 1, 2013

Big data has already helped doctors to diagnose and treat patients. Now, it can help to create the very drugs that will be prescribed.

Two researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, have created custom database software able to match cancer-linked genes to drugs, whether they be approved by the Food and Drug Administration or just entering the development pipeline. 

Obi Griffith, PhD, and Malachi Griffith, PhD, the identical twin brothers who developed the project, are experts in a field of science known as bioinformatics, which combines biology and computing. The discipline often involves analyzing large quantities of data, and after being repeatedly being asked whether lists of genes identified through cancer genome sequencing could be targeted with existing drugs, the brothers got their idea.

"It shouldn't take a computer wizard to answer that question," said Obi in an interview with the school's paper. "But in reality, we often had to write special software to find out. Now, researchers can quickly and easily search for themselves."

The custom database, which took years to develop, is freely available for all to use. It features more than 14,000 interactions involving 2,600 genes and 6,300 drugs that target those genes, along with another 6,700 genes that could eventually be the target of future drugs. The search function is easy and intuitive: users can enter the name of a single gene or lists of many genes to retrieve drugs targeting those genes. This data can inform researchers of how best to target genetic errors.

While it is informative, the database does not recommend treatment and is most valuable as an in-depth resource to further clinical research. Nonetheless, this is an exciting development in data management that will support life-saving experimentation.