Using Bioinformatics to Define New Paths to Cancer Prevention

No one ever wants to receive the startling diagnosis of cancer. It is one simple word that can incite a rush of fear and emotion, but also resolve and motivation to overcome the disease. Once diagnosed, patients typically undergo a bevy of treatments – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation – sometimes all three (or more). However, what if patients could reduce the severity of the disease, or even avoid the initial diagnosis altogether?

This is the focus of cancer prevention research, a field dedicated to understanding how cancer develops and how lifestyle changes and preemptive actions can prevent disease onset or progression. It is well known that certain behaviors like smoking, inactivity, consuming an unhealthy diet, and failing to undergo preventive screening measures can impact one’s cancer risk. While measures such as adopting a healthy lifestyle, not smoking, and getting regular preventive screening can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, it is important to realize that there are a host of other factors that can influence tumor development and progression.

Rong Xu, PhD

Rong Xu, PhD

Rong Xu, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, is familiar with this problem, and has designed a research program focused on understanding the complicated process of tumor development. Specifically, her work examines the integration of environmental and genetic factors in the context of improving cancer prevention and treatment strategies. “Many cancers are complex, with genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors contributing to both disease susceptibility and progression,” says Xu. “While significant progress has been made in understanding genetic and molecular aspects of cancer, relatively little is known about how, and which, environmental factors interact with genetic factors in carcinogenesis.”

In 2015, Xu received the Landon Foundation-AACR INNOVATOR Award for Cancer Prevention Research to pursue her research centered on uncovering links between microbiome metabolites and colorectal cancer. “We are regularly exposed to a wide range of chemicals originating from environmental toxins and pollutants, food additives, diet, medications, household pollutants, and more,” says Xu. “The identification of modifiable environmental factors and the understanding of their roles in diseases will provide insight into the basic mechanisms of cancers and enable new possibilities for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.”

This is the ultimate goal of Xu’s research, which she approaches somewhat differently than standard laboratory-based science. “My approach is mainly computational, which allows me to integrate and reason over vast amounts of publicly available datasets,” Xu explains. “My study will generate a large amount of data and hypotheses that will assist other investigators in conducting hypothesis-driven biomedical and clinical studies.”

She is uniquely qualified for such work, holding an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in computer science. Xu combined these seemingly different fields during her graduate work, receiving a doctorate in biomedical informatics from Stanford University School of Medicine. “Biomedical informatics is an interdisciplinary field that studies and pursues the effective uses of biological information to improve human health,” says Xu. “My training in biology taught me to generate rational hypotheses and to appreciate the complexity of biological systems. My training in computer science taught me to develop novel algorithms to make sense of these complex biological data.”

Xu is currently six months into her two-year grant term. In addition to making an impact on the field of colorectal cancer, Xu is confident that the studies supported by this grant will also be readily translatable to other types of cancer, as well as other diseases where understanding how modifiable environmental factors can inform prevention strategies and improve treatment approaches. “This grant made a significant impact on my research,” says Xu. “It has encouraged me to enter an entirely new area of research, studying how environmental factors contribute to diseases such as cancer.”