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Emory to Launch Genomics Lab

Kate Traynor

Researchers at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta will soon rely on a mix of computing power, clinical information, and gene-expression data to bring genetically targeted cancer therapy to patients.

"I think that this concept of targeting drug therapy to tumor-specific genetic aberrations is applicable to…all cancers," says Sagar Lonial, M.D., an assistant professor at Emory. Lonial provides clinical input for the genomics project, which is a joint effort among Emory, computer-maker IBM, and NuTec Sciences Inc., a bioinformatics company.

Targeted therapy, Lonial notes, is a step away from the one-size-fits-all approach that characterizes most cancer treatment today. "We treat almost all acute leukemias the same way in spite of the fact that we know that there are different chromosomal abnormalities in each of these....We don’t really have the tools to target each chromosomal abnormality," he says.

But the situation is changing. Lonial points to the recent Food and Drug Administration approval of Novartis Pharma’s imatinib mesylate, or Gleevec, indicated for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), as proof that targeted cancer therapy can work. Gleevec inhibits the action of Bcr-Abl, an abnormal protein that stimulates the uncontrolled production of white blood cells observed in CML patients.

Lonial is confident that Emory’s data-collection efforts will "absolutely" benefit patients in the future. Part of the reason, he says, is that Emory’s genomics data includes clinical and outcomes information from cancer patients. "It's not just what happens to [patients] after they get diagnosed. But it’s also what medicines were they on, what was their serum LDH [lactate dehydrogenase]—all those things that can be hooked into this massive database that allow us to sort of find patterns or things that are going to clue us in to how patients are going to do."

Emory’s database is housed in an IBM computer system described by the project’s sponsors as the fastest installed outside a government agency. "It allows you to do very powerful searches," Lonial says. "It’ll give you tools not just to target therapy but also to look at populations of patients with similar defects [and see] what their clinical response was."

"Let’s say we did 50 [searches] of cancer type X," he says. "And we discovered that...20 people that did really poorly all had this certain pattern of gene expression....Then you could then go the other direction and say, well, how did those people do who all had this pattern of expression? What did it mean for their response to therapy, for their overall outcome?"

According to the project’s sponsors, the database will be "fully functional" by the end of this year. Lonial, who says that the genomics database grows every day, believes the endeavor already has clinical value.

"The ability to have all of the pathologic data available on any given patient at one screen is actually a step forward," he says. "Being able to link it with the [gene-expression] microarray data is really sort of the prize, I think."