University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research are using computer models of blood development to speed the search for new leukemia drugs.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research have developed a computerized blood model that allows them to simulate the development of blood cancers. The blood model may be used to look more closely at how blood cancers develop, and how they respond to certain types of treatments.
"Because the computer simulations are very fast, we can quickly screen through lots of possibilities to pick the most promising ones as pathways for drug development,” says Professor Bertie Gottgens from the University of Cambridge Institute for Medical Research. “The cost of developing a new drug is enormous, and much of this cost comes from new candidate drugs failing late in the drug development process. Our model could significantly reduce the risk of failure, with the potential to make drug discovery faster and cheaper."
Failure is nothing new for innovators. But it can be expensive, and this simulated blood model should reduce the costs of developing experimental new treatments.
Developing a Computerized Model of Blood
The work is the combined effort of doctoral students Vicki Moignard, from the Stem Cell Institute, and Stephen Woodhouse, from the University of Cambridge. Moignard measured the activity of 48 genes in over 3,900 blood progenitor cells that give rise to all other types of blood cells: red and white blood cells, and platelets. Woodhouse used the resulting dataset to construct a computer model of blood cell development via something akin to binary code.
The computer model simulates the development of certain genes related to blood cancers, and can be used to tweak the abnormal cells back into normal patterns. This could inform the development of new drugs and treatments.
“By harnessing the power of cutting-edge computer technology, this research will dramatically speed up the search for more effective and kinder treatments that target these cancers at their roots,” says Dr. Matt Kaiser, who heads the charity Leukemia & Lymphoma Research, which has funded Gottgens’ research team for over a decade.
This most recent research project was supported by the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Microsoft Research and the Wellcome Trust.
Blood Cancers Around the World
Most blood cancers begin in the bone marrow, where stem cells mature and develop into three types of blood: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. In blood cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, the development of normal blood is interrupted by the growth of abnormal blood cells, which prevent blood from performing many of its functions (e.g., fighting of disease).
Leukemia is the 11th most common cancer worldwide. The highest rates are in New Zealand and Australia, according to Cancer Research UK, and the lowest rates in Western Africa, which could reflect issues in data reporting.
In the US, 156,420 new cases of blood cancers were diagnosed in 2014. Of these new cases, 15% were myeloma, 33% were leukemia, and 51% were lymphoma. Each hour in the US, more than 6 people die of blood cancer.
Blood cancer does not discriminate based on age, race, or lifestyle. Anyone, at any age, can develop blood cancer. Overall survival rates have doubled in the last 30 years, largely due to research like this.
Dr. Jasmin Fisher from Microsoft Research and the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge says:
"This is yet another endorsement of how computer programs empower us to gain better understanding of remarkably complicated processes. What is ground-breaking about the current work is that we show how we can automate the process of building such programs based on raw experimental data. It provides us with a blueprint to develop computer models relevant to other human diseases including common cancers such as breast and colon cancer."