12 Conference Report #techonomy12

180° Shift: Geek-Powered Cancer Research


  • (All photos by Asa Mathat)

    (All photos by Asa Mathat)

  • 20121112_untitled_AT1T2656

David Haussler
Director, Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering, UC Santa Cruz

Haussler:  In the minute it took me to walk on stage, another person in the U.S. died of cancer. We’ve reduced the death rate from heart disease by about 70 percent over the last 50 years; cancer, only about 10 percent.

In the next two years, cancer will replace heart disease as a number one killer in the United States. The white coats have done their best, but we actually need the computer geeks to get involved at this point. We need you, we need your creativity, we need your drive.

Why is it the geeks’ turn? Cancer is a digital disease, and it will have a digital cure.

Cancer is caused by mutations created by a few cells in your body, causing them to grow in uncontrolled fashion. There are thousands of different types of mutations that occur in a huge number of different combinations. It’s not comprehensible by an unaided human mind, but it would be with the power of a computer-aided analysis.

What is different from the last 50 years is we can now read those mutations. We can read every change that’s happened in the DNA in a cancer from a biopsy. This is because we have a dramatic new technology: DNA sequencing.

I was privileged to be part of the first project to sequence a human genome 12 years ago. We did so at about $300 million in technology cost.

By 2014 you’ll be able to sequence a genome for $1,000. So this technology has improved by a factor of 10,000 in the last eight years, while computers have improved by a factor of 20.

This is a disruptive technology. DNA sequencing is one of the most dramatically expanding technologies.

This fact that we can apply DNA sequencing large scale now to cancer is not lost on the National Cancer Institute, and they’ve initiated large-scale cancer sequencing projects, including the Cancer Genome Atlas to sequence more than 10,000 different cases of cancer.

I, again, had the privilege of building the database for that store of data. And we are aiming towards five petabytes. We’ve distributed two petabytes of data in the previous six months.

The fight against cancer will not be successful with just 10,000 cases. We need at least a million genomes to understand the complexity of cancer, to connect the different combinations of mutations and the subtypes and the sub-subtypes to clinical outcome. We can get that many because there are 1.6 million new cases of cancer every year in the United States, but it won’t happen unless you advocate.

We have to stand up, we have to demand that patients have the option to get these genomes sequenced, and that those data can go into a common repository. It’s really the geek power that’s the missing ingredient in cancer research today, and you could provide it.

We have to do this not only for ourselves, but for our children. So let’s not lose another minute. Thank you.

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