WINDBER – While one section of Windber Research Institute scientists looks at proteins and other message-substances produced human cells, another section is examining the DNA makeup of the cancer tumor tissue.
Both areas of study involve analyzing a lot of information.
For every one of more than 65,000 breast tumor and blood samples in the Richard Mural Memorial Tissue Repository at Windber, records include not only specifics about the cancer, but also the patients’ ages, ethnicities and other demographics.
When researchers check for differences among cancers, they are often looking at the 24 human chromosomes.
Each chromosome is a very long molecule of DNA that can range in length from about 50 million to 250 million pairs of smaller molecules assembled as the famous double helix.
Scientists have located about 1.4 million locations where cancer can change the sequence.
All that information must be cataloged, stored and made accessible by Windber’s biomedical informatics staff, headed by Senior Director Hai Hu.
The multi-disciplinary field is crucial for data collection, generation and tracking, as well as analyzing and mining the information.
Besides providing infrastructure support for the institute’s daily operations and other sections’ research, the bioinformatics staff has its own integrative research projects.
Many of the studies involve computational analysis of existing data, Hu said.
One study looked at patients with similar cancers and compared how the cells acted, based on race.
“We were looking for differences in African-American and Caucasian women,” Hu said.
“In a preliminary study, we found some markers that expressed selectively between race groups.”
The study may help explain why African-Americans don’t get cancer as often as Caucasians, but are more likely to die from breast cancer.
Bioinformatics scientists have worked with the National Cancer Institute for five projects, with more expected, Hu said.
As part of a research consortium with Thomas Jefferson University, Windber is profiling proteins across 5,000 breast cancer specimens to look at 250 proteins that could be targeted in therapy.
The study, funded by a $6.7 million grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is also developing a clinical trial for treatment of triple-negative breast-cancer.
But the largest feather in the bioinformatics cap is its selection to set up the biomedical information technology system at the John Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the nearby Joint Pathology Center.
“This was because of our past achievements,” Hu said.
“We have a reputation, so the Commerce Department granted us sole responsibility for the development for infrastructure for the Murtha center.”