By Dan White
David Haussler, director of the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, spoke eloquently about the front lines of cancer research at the prestigious Techonomy 2012 conference in Tucson, Ariz.
The annual conference, which took place November 11-13, aims to change the way leaders think about innovation and technology and the roles they play in everyday life. Conferences are designed to provide a deeper understanding of the economic power of innovation.
In his presentation, Haussler, distinguished professor of biomolecular engineering and leader of the Cancer Genomics Hub Project, addressed the tremendous potential of cancer research and all the ground that researchers have gained in the battle against this disease. But he also underscored cancer’s deadly power:
“In the minute it took me to walk on stage, another person in the U.S. died of cancer. We’ve reduced the death rate from heart disease by about 70 percent over the last 50 years; cancer, only about 10 percent,” he said.
“In the next two years, cancer will replace heart disease as a number one killer in the United States,” Haussler continued. “The white coats have done their best, but we actually need the computer geeks to get involved at this point. We need you, we need your creativity, we need your drive.”
After that sobering opener, Haussler talked about the potential for a ‘digital cure.’
“I was privileged to be part of the first project to sequence a human genome 12 years ago,” Haussler said. “We did so at about $300 million in technology cost.”
“By 2014 you’ll be able to sequence a genome for $1,000. So this technology has improved by a factor of 10,000 in the last eight years, while computers have improved by a factor of 20.”
He also called for greater participation in the digital battlefront.
“The fight against cancer will not be successful with just 10,000 cases. We need at least a million genomes to understand the complexity of cancer, to connect the different combinations of mutations and the subtypes and the sub-subtypes to clinical outcome.”
Haussler is involved in efforts to catalog genetic abnormalities found in different types of cancers and find links between specific genetic changes and the ways that patients respond to different treatments.
“It’s time the digital age meets cancer head on, and we can do this with the technology we have,” Haussler told a rapt audience last year at the UCSC Music Recital Hall during the UCSC Foundation Forum. “With the community’s help, we can bring bold, new information technology to the battle against cancer.”
UCSC is famous for its genomic database. In the summer of 2000, shortly after the announcement of the first sequenced human genome, the entire sequence was posted on the Internet for the first time from UC Santa Cruz.
The website attracts 17 million hits per month from hundreds of thousands of biomedical researchers. Now Haussler is working to build a database of cancer genomics.
Watch the video here and see Haussler’s full presentation.