Big data unites study of stars with cancer research

09:34 • 13.03.17



The study of the stars and the fight against cancer may seem to have little in common but the two have been brought together by the algorithms that read big data.


Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data - 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years alone.


This amount of data has in turn driven a revolution in ever smarter computers that can make sense of all that information.


Medicine is just one area benefiting from this closer relationship between information and machines.


The collaboration between astronomers and oncologists began at a cross-disciplinary meeting in Cambridge to discuss data management.


At the meeting, Dr Nicholas Walton, an astronomer, met James Brenton from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

 

Prof Carlos Caldas, who also works at Cancer Research UK, explains what happened next.


"Astronomers are looking at pictures of the sky, but they can't sift through millions of pictures by hand, so they use imaging algorithms that can analyse and classify objects," he says.


"We obtain images from humans. Could we deploy the same algorithms to read that data?"


The answer was yes and the algorithm has been advancing the study of cancer ever since.


"Using the astronomy algorithm, we can automatically classify hundreds of thousands of cells, we can look at patterns, how cells are related to each other, we can precisely count them and find the average distance between cells," Prof Caldas says.


"It speeds up diagnosis and allows us to glean information that had previously been glossed over.


"It is completely transforming pathology into the digital realm.


"The sky is the limit."

 

Scientists at Cancer Research UK have just announced a breakthrough in the way they "read" breast cancer cells.


It means that they are now able to create a 3D map that links the shape of breast cancer cells to genes turning on and off, matching it to real disease outcomes.

 





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