Using their own funding, the two universities have created The Gulf Coast Center for Computational Cancer Research. The center was formed under the auspices of the Gulf Coast Consortium for Bioinformatics.
While other cancer centers around the nation are turning to computer scientists to assist their investigations, this center is unique in the scope of projects planned by scientists at Rice and M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
For example, center scientists plan to improve the design of clinical trials of novel therapies by using computers to simulate the trials before they begin. Then, as the trial is under way, real time data can be collected and analyzed, and changes can be made in the trial design as promising results are obtained. Such flexibility would offer patients the best therapies as soon as possible.
The center's work will further build on advances in analysis technologies that enable the assembly of large databases of detailed profiles of genes and proteins obtained from cancer patients. These databases will include a broad range of profiles, beginning with precancerous lesions and continuing to metastasized tumors through treatment and into remission. Analyzing these profiles, researchers can identify the specific mutations that cause different cancers, create tests for each possible variation, and design patient-specific treatments.
"The rapid advance of technology has created a number of opportunities for understanding the causes of cancer and its treatment, but each of these opportunities requires the development of custom, high-performance software that can run efficiently on modern supercomputers," said Ken Kennedy, John and Ann Doerr University Professor at Rice and co-director of the center. "At Rice, we have the resources to develop that software, and we are looking forward to working with M. D. Anderson's cancer researchers to meet this critically important challenge."
High-performance software is necessary in cancer research because of the large size of the databases. Cancer is many thousands of different diseases. For malignancy to occur, a number of mistakes must become established in the DNA of the descendants of a single cell. Since these mutations can occur in different genes, there are vast numbers of possible combinations of cancer-causing mutations -- larger than the number of atoms in the universe -- so even identifying them is a daunting task, the scientists say.
The center will both facilitate the development of this software and simplify the applications to make them more broadly accessible to cancer researchers.
"Our goal, of course, is to effectively treat and even prevent cancer, and with this center, we will be developing more efficient strategies for deciding how to do that," said the other co-director of the center, Donald Berry, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics and applied mathematics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. "We will apply high level computing to virtually every aspect of cancer treatment, from cancer diagnosis and protein modeling of each patient, to drug discovery and clinical trial design.
"The computing needs of the cancer research community are enormous, and with the intellectual expertise in problem solving offered by our collaborators from Rice, we can open doors that we can only now imagine exist," says Berry.
The Gulf Coast Consortium for Bioinformatics fosters collaborations between information technology, computer science, statistics, and biological and medical sciences. It is part of the Gulf Coast Consortia, a research and education collaboration of six prominent institutions in the Houston-Galveston area. The other four partner consortia institutions -- Baylor College of Medicine, University of Houston, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston -- may also participate in this enterprise.
For more information, go to www.gulfcoastconsortia.org.