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University Medical Center Groningen

New method makes larger studies into the origin of cancer possible

Re-using large amounts of biological data makes ‘big data’ analysis of DNA mutations possible

Press release, UMCG, 12 January 2015

Cancer arises due to mutations in the DNA. But in order to identify these mutations, it is necessary to study the DNA of very many cancer patients. Researchers at the University Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) have developed a method to do this and have now analysed the data from 16,000 cancer patients. This is one of the largest oncology studies to date, worldwide. They have published their method in the authorative journal Nature Genetics.

The new method was developed by a team under the leadership of Prof. Lude Franke, a statistical geneticist: “The systematic analysis of DNA from 16,000 tumours is very costly. However, in the past 15 years, studies have looked at a lot of gene expression and these measurements are publically available. We have developed a new statistical method so that we can re-assess this information. By investigating more than 16,000 tumours, we have been able to determine which changes occur in the DNA. We saw that certain mutations in the tumour DNA are very common, while others occur only in specific tumour types, like breast cancer.”

Medical-oncologist Dr. Rudolf Fehrmann pointed out that this method makes it possible to look at gene expression profiles in a fresh light compared to the past 15 years. “It has enabled us to indicate potential starting points for developing new therapies for a group of cancers that are difficult to treat, for example, (a group that has many mutations in the DNA). These are now being investigated with experiments in the laboratory.”

The researchers studied 80,000 expression profiles in developing their method. Such a ‘big data’ approach has only recently become possible, with the arrival of better computers and new mathematical techniques that permit very efficient research to be performed. Large amounts of data, which were gathered for completely different purposes, are now proving useful to further insight into how cancer arises. This method makes new studies in this field possible and will save much money.

Last modified:13 January 2015 4.22 p.m.