Tumor bank ready to share 'treasure'

Cancer effort aims to coordinate data



Inside the big gleaming canisters at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University is a “treasure trove” of thousands of tumor samples and other material that could aid cancer research, the director of the Biorepository said.

A new national initiative to coordinate those kinds of samples nationwide could help make greater use of them, said Dr. Roni Bollag.

As part of the National Cancer Moonshot and the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative, the National Cancer Institute has launched Genomic Data Commons to “centralize, standardize and make accessible data” from large genomic databases on cancer, the NCI said. That will potentially include the data and 20,000 tissue samples already stored in the liquid nitrogen freezers at the AU cancer center, Bollag said.

“I would have to admit it is underutilized because there is so much research that could come out of these samples,” he said.

“We do have a lot of researchers in this (cancer research) building that make as much use as possible but they have very focused research programs so you kind of pick and choose what cancer model you are interested in.”

What is probably needed is broader-based, more basic research into the root causes, something that the larger collaborative could make possible, Bollag said.

“With the number of patients they are talking about, there is a very good chance we can make sense of the root cause of carcinogenesis and what drives the tumors,” he said. “What we have is a treasure trove for doing the legwork or the baseline research.”

The potential could be two petabytes of data, or enough to fill nearly 500,000 DVDs, according to the NCI. The data is great but also part of the challenge, Bollag said.
“This generates ridiculous amounts of data and someone has to parse through that and determine what is really at fault, what is driving that, because there is a lot of noise from that much information,” he said.

Because the samples can be linked to clinical outcomes through de-identified data, they provide the potential to help personalize therapy based on the patient’s and the cancer’s genetic makeup, Bollag said.

Clinical trials would “try to tailor their therapy based on what we find out from that,” he said.

The AU center already participates in one large genomic database, The Cancer Genome Atlas, which is part of the new initiative, and in a collaboration with some other institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Bollag said. If research is going to take big steps forward, researchers will need to overcome their fears about sharing data and come together, he said.

“There is so much data out there and we are going to generate so much more data,” Bollag said. “We need to have a way to all have access to the data because one researcher might find a nugget in someone else’s data that is very relevant and vice versa.”

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