Rutgers–Camden Researchers Analyze Cancer Mutations for International Science Competition

Research being done at Rutgers University–Camden could help improve the way genomic cancer data is analyzed for research and clinical practice.

Andrey Grigoriev, a professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden, and two research assistants, including a Rutgers–Camden graduate, are participating in an international competition of algorithms that seeks ways to better identify cancer-causing mutations in genes.

The ICGC-TCGA DREAM Mutation Calling Challenge is conducted by several organizations including the International Cancer Genome Consortium and The Cancer Genome Atlas. There are many participants from research institutions all over the world, and each of them are developing mutation detection algorithms in their labs. Large centers, such as MD Anderson Cancer Center, and prominent genomic research organizations, like Broad Institute of MIT, Harvard University, and the multinational European Molecular Biology Laboratory are setting the pace in the race. Grigoriev’s lab is also among the leaders.

“It’s nice to see a small university like Rutgers–Camden get recognition among all of these global research institutions,” says Grigoriev, who teaches in Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Computational and Integrative Biology. “It feels good to be able to participate in research that carries so much significance.”

Grigoriev says questions remain about how mutiple somatic genetic mutations come together to cause cancer. Researchers are trying to identify the most accurate methods for detecting these mutations using whole-genome sequencing, which is a process that determines an organism’s complete DNA sequence.

By relating genetic variations in a patient’s tumor to normal tissue, “targetable genes” can be found, new drugs and treatments tailored to individual patients can be developed, the Rutgers–Camden scholar says.

“There’s still a long way to go, but knowing genome changes in tumors would be a way to personalize cancer treatments because every patient’s tumor has a different history and different mutations,” Grigoriev explains.

Using both synthetic datasets and data from actual cancer patients, participating research teams devise algorithms to predict the mutations. The most successful algorithms will be included in a wide range of scientific and medical studies to be published in top journals and could become the standard for analyzing cancer genomes in labs around the world.

So far, the Rutgers–Camden team’s efforts have proved to be fruitful.

“Our goal is to make sure our algorithms accurately predict those mutations,” says Sean Smith, a postdoctoral research assistant from Woodstown who joined Grigoriev’s lab after earning his doctoral degree from George Mason University. “We’re confident that our methods can be successful.”

Joe Kawash, a Riverton resident who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rutgers–Camden and is working with Grigoriev on the project, adds, “It’s a lot of hard work, but I’ve learned a lot and am proud to be part of something that can have real significance. To see that our work can stack up with other researchers from around the world is an exciting part of it.”

Final results from the ICGC-TCGA DREAM Mutation Calling Challenge are expected in the end of 2014.

A seasoned researcher with experience in bioinformatics and computational and systems biology, Grigoriev is internationally recognized for research innovations that advance the applications of computational approaches to a wide range of life science disciplines, from metagenomics to aging to cancer research.

Grigoriev, who resides in Medford, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute in Russia. He received his doctoral degree in molecular biology from the Institute of Genetics and Selection of Industrial Microorganisms in Russia based on his work at the Imperial Cancer Research Institute in London, UK.

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