A computer generated “virtual cancer patient” can predict how patients with advanced breast cancer respond to treatment with 70 per cent accuracy, scientists reveal at the NCRI Cancer Conference in Birmingham today.

The team from Nottingham City Hospital, in collaboration with researchers at the Institute for Medical Biomathematics in Israel, undertook a pilot study on 33 patients with advanced breast cancer that had spread to the liver, lymph nodes or lungs. They used the cyber-patient, based on advanced mathematical models, to find out which drug out of two would work best in each patient, based on certain characteristics of their cancer, such as the size of their tumours and how fast they were growing.

In this retrospective study, part funded by Cancer Research UK, the Optimata “virtual cancer patient” (OVP) model accurately predicted how around 70 per cent of the patients responded to their treatment. In the future, technology like this could help doctors tailor treatment more accurately to ensure every patient receives the most appropriate therapy to treat their particular disease.

The two chemotherapy drugs they compared were called docetaxel and doxorubicin – these can be used on their own to treat a number of cancers but can have different effects in different people. Looking at drugs that work best on their own, rather than in combination with other drugs, provided the researchers with the most clear cut data. Patients with advanced cancer were chosen for this pilot study because they are most likely to suffer serious side effects, such as fatigue and sickness, due to the volume of anti-cancer drugs they receive.

Dr Abhik Mukherjee from Nottingham City Hospital who worked on the study, said: “Every cancer is slightly different and every patient will respond to treatment differently. We wanted to find a way to predict how patients would respond to a particular drug in order to limit their side effects and give them the best chance of beating their disease.”

The OVP was “trained” using clinical data from real patients. The team programmed the model to look at how the drugs affected the growth of the cancer, how the drugs behaved in the body and how the cancer cells responded to the drugs. Once the model had been fully “trained” they compared the predictions of the OVP programme with the actual response of patients to the treatment to test the effectiveness of the technology.

Dr Stephen Chan, who also worked on the study, added: “We found the computer programme accurately predicted how the patients responded to treatment in around 70 per cent of cases. However this was a pilot study in a small number of patients, so now we want to fine tune the model to improve its accuracy and test it in a larger study. We also want to see how it works when we use combinations of drugs and whether the model can predict if a patient will suffer other side effects in response to the treatment.”

Kate Law, director of clinical trials at Cancer Research UK, said: “This was a very interesting early study that could potentially have a big impact on how cancer patients are treated in the future. Tailoring treatments to individual patients will ensure the best possible outcome for every patient. This is a hugely important area of cancer research, so we look forward to seeing how this technology performs in a larger trial.”


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This work was part-supported by a Cancer Research UK pilot project grant and Nottingham University Hospital. The technology used in this project was supplied by Optimata Ltd, Israel and coordinated by Professor Zvia Agur at the Institute of Medical BioMathematics. The abstract is being presented at the 2006 NCRI Cancer Conference, and has been shortlisted for the British Association for Cancer Research Hamilton-Fairley Young Investigator Award.

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About the NCRI

The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) was established in April 2001. It is a partnership between government, the voluntary sector and the private sector, with the primary mission of maximising patient benefit that accrues from cancer research in the UK through coordination of effort and joint planning towards an integrated national strategy for cancer research. Click here to visit the NCRI website.

The NCRI consists of: The Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI); The Association for International Cancer Research; The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; Breakthrough Breast Cancer; Breast Cancer Campaign; Cancer Research UK; Department of Health; Economic and Social Research Council; Leukaemia Research Fund; Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research; Macmillan Cancer Support; Marie Curie Cancer Care; The Medical Research Council; Northern Ireland Health and Personal Social Services Research & Development Office; Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation; Scottish Executive Health Department; Tenovus; Wales Office of Research and Development for Health & Social Care; Wellcome Trust; and Yorkshire Cancer Research. AstraZeneca is the gold sponsor for the NCRI Cancer Conference 2006.