Is cloud computing a game changer in cancer research? Three big questions for Lukas Chavez

| Written by Miles Martin
Lukas Chavez, Ph.D.

As an assistant professor at Sanford Burnham Prebys and director of the Neuro-Oncology Molecular Tumor Board at Rady Children’s Hospital, Lukas Chavez, Ph.D., leverages modern technology for precision diagnostics and for uncovering new treatment options for the most aggressive childhood brain cancers.

We spoke to Chavez about his work and asked him how modern technology—particularly cloud computing—is shifting the approach to cancer research.

How are you using new technologies to advance your research?

New technologies are helping us generate a huge amount of data as well as many new types of data. All this new information at our disposal has created a pressing need for tools to make sense of it and maximize their benefits. That’s where computational biology and bioinformatics come into play. The childhood brain cancers I work on are very rare, which has historically made it difficult to study large numbers of cases and identify patterns.

Now, data for thousands of cases can be stored in the cloud. By creating data analysis tools, we can reveal insights that we would never have seen otherwise. For example, we’ve developed tools that can use patient data in the cloud to categorize brain cancers into subtypes we’ve never identified before, and we’re learning that there are many more types of brain tumors than we’ve previously understood. We’re basically transforming the classic histo-pathological approach that people have studied for decades by looking at tumor tissues under the microscope and turning that into data science.

How is cloud computing improving cancer research in general?

Assembling big datasets delays everything, so I believe the main idea of cloud computing is really to store data in the cloud, then bring the computational tools to the data, not the other way around.

My team did one study where we assembled publicly available data, and basically downloaded everything locally. The data assembly process alone took at least two to three years because of all the data access agreements and legal offices that were involved.

And that is the burden that cloud computing infrastructures remove. All of this personalized cancer data can be centrally stored in the cloud, which makes it available to more researchers while keeping it secure to protect patient privacy. Researchers can get access without downloading the data, so they are not responsible for data protection anymore. It’s both faster and more secure to just bring your tools to the data.

Are there any risks we need to be aware of?

Like any new technology, we need to be clear about how we use it. The technology is another tool in the toolbox of patient care. It will never entirely replace physicians and researchers, but it can complement and assist them.

Also, because we use costly and sophisticated tools that are being built and trained on very specific patient groups, we need to be careful that these tools are not only helping wealthier segments of society. Ideally, these tools will be expanded worldwide to help everybody affected by cancer.

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