independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Scientists turn to astronomy to identify cancer tumours

Cancer scientists are turning to astronomy to identify the faint hallmarks of aggressive tumours.

Techniques developed to find distant galaxies have been adapted to look for indistinct biomarkers.

The research could lead to computers replacing the age-old practice of peering down a microscope to search for signs of deadly cancer.

Aggressive tumours are traditionally spotted by staining cells to show up specific proteins.

The new approach employs an automated system originally developed to pick out far away objects in the night sky.

In tests, the technique was employed to measure levels of three proteins among tumour samples from more than 2,000 breast cancer patients.

Researchers compared the accuracy of assessing the results manually or by computer. They found that the automated system was at least as accurate as the manual one but many times faster.

Lead scientist Dr Raza Ali, from Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Institute, said: "We've exploited the natural overlap between the techniques astronomers use to analyse deep sky images from the largest telescopes and the need to pinpoint subtle differences in the staining of tumour samples down the microscope.

"The results have been even better than we'd hoped, with our new automated approach performing with accuracy comparable to the time-consuming task of scoring images manually, after only relatively minor adjustments to the formula. We're now planning a larger international study involving samples from more than 20,000 breast cancer patients to further refine our strategy."

The research, conducted with the help of Cambridge University astronomers, is reported in the British Journal of Cancer.

Co-author Professor Carlos Caldas, also from the Cambridge Institute, said: "Modern techniques are giving us some of the first insights into the key genes and proteins important in predicting the success or failure of different cancer treatments. But before these can be applied in the clinic, their usefulness needs to be verified in hundreds or sometimes thousands of tumour samples.

"Already this new automated approach means we can now analyse up to 4,000 images a day, helping streamline the process of translating these discoveries into the clinic."

Dr Nicholas Walton, from Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy, said: "It's great that our image analysis software, which was originally developed to help track down planets harbouring life outside of our Solar System, is now also being used to help improve the outlook for cancer patients, much closer to home."

Dr Julie Sharp, science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "This unlikely collaboration between astronomers and cancer researchers is a prime example of how, by working together, scientists from different disciplines can bring about innovative new solutions for beating cancer."

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