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From microscope to telescope – how astronomy could help cancer research

by Kat Arney | Analysis

16 August 2010

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An astronaut

Exploring the final frontiers in cancer research

Scientists at our Cambridge Research Institute have turned their gaze from the lab bench to the stars, teaming up with researchers from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge.

Writing in The Times (requires payment), science editor Mark Henderson explores this unlikely collaboration, and how it could help cancer patients in the future.

Here’s a short excerpt:

The hunt for supernovas, young stars and planets in distant solar systems has had an unlikely spin-off: British astronomers are adapting the tools of their trade to help medical colleagues to improve diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Sophisticated software developed to pick faint objects of interest out of dense star-field images is being redeployed to screen tissue samples from breast cancer patients for clues to their prognosis and treatment.

It allows scientists to screen tens of thousands of tumour samples to investigate whether patients live longer when certain biomarkers are used to inform therapy. Such studies could lead to more personalised medicine, by which patients are treated according to the individual characteristics of their cancers.

“The type of data involved is really quite similar,” [astronomer Dr Nic Walton] said. “We generate huge amounts of data — 500 gigabytes a night. But we are often interested in faint signals we need to pull out — faint infra-red from a young star clouded in dust, a faint supernova going off in another galaxy, the wobble in a star’s light as a planet transits in front.”

The team realised that similar techniques could be used to pick out signals from tumour samples — such as the proportion of cells that had been stained to denote high levels of particular chemicals that affect cancer prognosis or response to treatment.

At the moment, the team is testing how well the astronomers’ technology can analyse tumour samples, and more work is needed before it’s suitable for use on a larger scale. But the project highlights the importance of collaboration between researchers in different scientific fields to push forward innovative new solutions for beating cancer.

Read the full story on The Times’ website (requires payment).


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