Virtual Blood Could Be the Key to More Effective Treatments for Blood Cancers

DEVELOPMENT of treatments for leukaemia and lymphoma could be aided by a new computer model that simulates the development of blood cells, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge and Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK.

Around 30,000 new patients are diagnosed with cancers of the blood every year in the UK alone. These cancers occur when the production of new blood cells gets out of balance. The human body produces over 2.5 million new blood cells a second in adult life, but how this complex process is controlled is still not well understood. In a bid to address this, an interdisciplinary team of biomedical students and computational biologists have developed a state-of-the-art computer model, which they assert will help us to gain a keen insight into the control mechanisms that keep blood production in check.

One way the computer model can be used is to simulate the activity of key genes implicated in blood cancers. The computer model shows how a gene, RUNX1, interacts with other genes to control blood cell development. Runx1, the protein encoded by this gene, activates a particular network of key genes in healthy individuals, but in leukaemia patients an altered form of Runx1 seems to suppress this network. The researchers can then change the ‘rules’ in the network model and simulate the formation of unusual leukaemia cells. They can even tweak the model until the behaviour of the network reverts back to normal, revealing possible avenues for treatment. This method can be used to quickly screen many possibilities and select the most promising pathways for drug development, theoretically reducing the need for costly and potentially futile drug trials. And there are broader implications:

“This is yet another endorsement of how computer programs empower us to gain better understanding of remarkably complicated processes. What is ground-breaking about the current work is that we show how we can automate the process of building such programs based on raw experimental data. It provides us with a blueprint to develop computer models relevant to other human diseases including common cancers such as breast and colon cancer,” said Dr Jasmin Fisher, Microsoft Research and the Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge.

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