OncoTrack tests drugs in virtual people

Nature Biotechnology Volume:29, Page:378(2011) doi:10.1038/nbt0511-378

Published online 06 May 2011

A new European consortium will use next-generation biomarkers to build a virtual patient in which to test colon cancer treatments. OncoTrack, announced in March is one of Europe's largest collaborations, a five-year project involving seven academic institutions and 11 industry partners coordinated by the Leverkusen-based Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals and the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin. “This is what is really new here—we will have a virtual patient that we can use to try all possible treatments and see what is likely to work,” says the academic coordinator of OncoTrack, Hans Lehrach of the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics.

The project will gather large-scale genomic and epigenetic sequences, as well as tumor phenotypic data, from individuals with colon cancer to provide a detailed characterization of each tumor type. The aim is to improve diagnosis and predict an individual's response to therapy. “We know that colon carcinoma is a very heterogeneous disease, and we want to provide a comprehensive description of this heterogeneity at a genetic level,” says David Henderson, the project's coordinator at Bayer. The genome sequences of primary tumors and metastases for each individual will be compared to their germline genome. The genomic data will be complemented with a characterization of DNA methylation, the transcriptome and various cell physiological parameters. “The inclusion of methylome analysis can be expected to significantly enhance our ability to target a wider spectrum of cancer-specific processes,” says Stephan Beck of University College London, who oversees the epigenetics part of OncoTrack.

To convert these combined phenotypic and genotypic data into clinically useful information, all experimental results will be fed into a computer model of the patient's cancer cell to help identify signaling pathways that present promising targets for each person's treatment. “We also hope that a better understanding of the biology of colon cancer will lead to the rational discovery of diagnostic markers in the serum of patients,” adds Henderson. In addition, the project aims to develop a series of new cancer cell lines and mouse tumor models from the patient-derived material, which will facilitate preclinical research on tumor biology and experimental therapeutics. The total budget is
25.8 ($37.2) million, which includes 16.1 ($23.3) million from the European Union as part of the Innovative Medicines Initiative and 9.7 ($14) million contributed by industry partners.