Big Data and Charlie Brown

Posted By Valerie Olague
Americas Business Group Lead

Only animal lovers could understand the bond I have with my dog, Charlie Brown, a pit bull/Chow mix that I found as a stray dog roaming my neighborhood eight years ago. My friends make fun of the human characteristics I attribute to Charlie, but those of us who believe in books such as The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein know that our companions are more than just pets. 

So when Charlie developed a cyst on his back last month, I didn’t hesitate to pay for surgery to remove it. The veterinary clinic offered to throw in a free dental cleaning while he was under anesthesia and so it goes that during this cleaning, they found that Charlie had melanoma inside of his mouth. It turns out that the Chow genes that help color Charlie’s tongue purple also contributes to a higher rate of melanoma in canines. 

Charlie Brown’s cancer care benefits from intelligent systems

As luck would have it, I discovered that there is a treatment available that has a high success rate with canine melanoma. As explained to me by the veterinarian, without the treatment, Charlie’s chances of dying within six months was up to 50 percent. With the treatment, the chance is reduced to 2 percent. Called immunotherapy, the vaccine contains the human DNA sequence that encodes a specific protein that is only found within melanocytes. Once injected into the dog, this human protein is recognized as a foreign body to the dog, so its immune system goes to work against not only the human protein but also the melanoma. The results are incredible.

Treatments like this are all made possible because of our ability to process and understand big data. One of the best-known accomplishments of processing big data is the Human Genome Project. Led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by the National Human Genome Research Institute, this research project described a very high-quality version of the human genome sequence that is freely available in public databases. First published at 90 percent complete in February, 2001, it contains the sequence of three billion base pairs. All of this data, as well as data from 260,000 organisms, is stored in GenBank, NIH’s genetic sequence database. In 2001, GenBank contained approximately 50GB of data, and the number of sequences has doubled every 14 months since.   

Through the study of both human and canine sequencing (the first canine draft was published in 2004), researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Merial and The Animal Medical Center of New York formulated the vaccine that Charlie Brown is now receiving. 

But what about people? The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013, there will be approximately 77,000 new cases of melanoma in the United States alone. Could these patients also benefit from this treatment? New research is providing promising results in using canine therapies with humans. I personally have three friends currently under care for melanoma identification and removal. The benefits they could receive from this therapy could eliminate a lifetime of skin checks and surgical removals at least; possibly, it could also save their lives. 

And for me, I look forward to many more years with Charlie Brown at my side, and to continued breakthroughs in data processing that can help lead to the human cure.

To read about innovative uses of intelligent systems in healthcare, visit our healthcare industry page, and read my other blogs here.

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