Cancer’s Common Ground
Vice President Joe Biden took the stage in June at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference in Chicago to announce the unveiling of the nation’s first-ever open-access cancer database.
Besides being a massive hub of storage, the Genomic Data Commons (GDC) offers a platform for doctors and researchers to analyze and share genomic and clinical data from a large pool of patients.
“What’s special and different about the GDC is we’re opening up all the software tools and analysis tools to any researcher, any hospital, whoever wants to contribute genomic data from patients with cancer and clinical data,” said Louis M. Staudt, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Genomics, who oversaw the development of the database. “In time, the idea would be the explanatory power of the data: The GDC would grow and we would be able to identify subtypes of cancer that have interesting genetic abnormalities that might suggest treatment.”
As part of the National Cancer Moonshot—an initiative led by Biden to end cancer—the GDC gathers information from various programs supported by the National Cancer Institute, including The Cancer Genome Atlas; Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET), a group that studies molecular changes that drive childhood cancers; and Foundation Medicine, Inc., a molecular information company that generates genomic profiles of cancer patients.
Researchers can contribute data to the GDC with a six-month period of exclusivity, during which time they are able to compare their patients’ data to the rest of the information in the database, Staudt said. After that, they are required to make their information available to qualified researchers, who submit research proposals to access the information.
“There’s a nice opportunity here to begin to standardize across entities and efforts that will hopefully allow us to do the more broad-sweeping and more confident comparisons across institutions and tumor types,” said Andrew Futreal, Ph.D., professor of genomics at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “I think that, from a TMC perspective, if there’s a common pipeline that is available, particularly for cancer analysis … then we have the opportunity to avail both small and large operations of more common architectures and infrastructures because the code they’ll use and the pipeline they can use through the GDC can be replicated in places where they have the horsepower to do it.”
As co-leader of MD Anderson’s Moon Shots Program, Futreal has helped develop platforms for genomics and Big Data, including the Translational Research Accelerator. Similar to the GDC, the accelerator contains approximately 250,000 active MD Anderson patients and 20,000 sets of genomic, immune profiling and protein data.
MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D., said he appreciates a database with a breadth of information, rather than a “baseball card worth of clinical stats.”
“The national GDC is a strong step in the right direction,” DePinho said. “While it is currently focused on genomic data, it should strive to also integrate proteomics, metabolomics and the immune-profiling data. It is the integration of these data that will provide us with a comprehensive view of cancer’s molecular complexity in the context of clinical care, enabling us to understand the disease on a most elemental level and to learn from different cancers.”
By outlining common molecular defects in various cancer patients, doctors would potentially be able to develop more targeted therapies and identify which clinical trials would be best suited for their patients with the goal of finding “the right drug for the right patient at the right time,” Staudt said.
Ultimately, the GDC is a testament to the medical community’s continued efforts to foster a culture of collaboration that will not only benefit patients today, but will “drive new standards of care for tomorrow,” DePinho said.
“It’s one for all and all for one,” DePinho said. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is for us to advance the field for the benefit of humanity. We have to put the patient before all else. We have to put the problem and progress as the highest priorities that transcend any individual or any institution.”