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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Cancer Researchers Use Astronomy Analysis Algorithms to Develop Platform for Locating and Examining Predictive Biomarkers in Tumors

Yet another example that technologies from non-medical fields continue to find their way into anatomic pathology and clinical laboratory medicine

Anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists may soon have new tools in the fight against cancer, thanks to researchers at the Mark Foundation Center for Advanced Genomics and Imaging at Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

Using algorithmic technology designed for mapping the stars, the scientists have created an imaging/spatial location platform called AstroPath which may help oncologists develop immunotherapies that work best on specific cancers. Such a capability is key to effective precision medicine techniques.

Dark Daily has regularly pointed out that technologies developed in other fields of science will eventually be brought into anatomic pathology and clinical laboratory medicine. Use of the star-mapping technology in oncology and the diagnosis of cancer is one such example.

In “Analysis of Multispectral Imaging with the AstroPath Platform Informs Efficacy of PD-1 Blockade,” published in the journal Science, the multi-institution research team wrote, “Here, we present the AstroPath platform, an end-to-end pathology workflow with rigorous quality control for creating quantitative, spatially resolved mIF [multiplex immunofluorescence] datasets. Although the current effort focused on a six-plex mIF assay, the principles described here provide a general framework for the development of any multiplex assay with single-cell image resolution. Such approaches will vastly improve the standardization and scalability of these technologies, enabling cross-site and cross-study comparisons. This will be essential for multiplex imaging technologies to realize their potential as biomarker discovery platforms and ultimately as standard diagnostic tests for clinical therapeutic decision-making.

“Drawing from the field of astronomy, in which petabytes of imaging data are routinely analyzed across a wide spectral range, [the researchers] developed a platform for multispectral imaging of whole-tumor sections with high-fidelity single-cell resolution. The resultant AstroPath platform was used to develop a multiplex immunofluorescent assay highly predictive of responses and outcomes for melanoma patients receiving immunotherapy,” the researchers added.

Using Star Mapping Software to Fight Cancer

“The application of advanced mapping techniques from astronomy has the potential to identify predictive biomarkers that will help physicians design precise immunotherapy treatments for individual cancer patients,” said Michele Cleary, PhD, CEO of the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, in a Johns Hopkins news release.

Although the universe we live in and the universe of a cancerous tumor may not seem related, the fact is the same visualization technology can be used to map them both.

“What should be pointed out is that astronomy is mapping the sky in three dimensions, so keeping the spatial relationships while also identify each heavenly body is the goal of these algorithms,” said Robert Michel, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report.

“Both aspects of that information technology have value in surgical pathology, where the spatial relationship of different cells and cell structures is relevant and important while also having the ability to identify and characterize different types of cells and cell structures. This technology appears to also be capable of identifying multiple biomarkers,” he added.

AstroPath graphic

The image above, taken from the researchers’ Science paper, illustrates the “strong parallels between multispectral analyses in astronomy and emerging multiplexing platforms for pathology.” The researchers wrote, “the next generation of tissue-based biomarkers are likely to be identified by use of large, well-curated datasets. To that end, image analysis approaches originally developed for astronomy were applied to pathology specimens to produce trillions of pixels of robust tissue imaging data and facilitate assay and atlas development.” Anatomic pathologists may be direct recipients of new cancer diagnostic tools based on the AstroPath platform. (Photo copyrights: Johns Hopkins University/Mark Foundation Center for Advanced Genomics/Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute.)

AstroPath Provides 1,000 Times the Information Content from A Single Biopsy

According to the news release, “[The researchers] characterized the immune microenvironment in melanoma biopsies by examining the immune cells in and around the cancer cells within the tumor mass and then identified a composite biomarker that includes six markers and is highly predictive of response to a specific type of an immunotherapy called Anti-PD-1 therapy.”

This is where the use of AstroPath is truly innovative. Previously, researchers could only identify those biomarkers one at a time, through a painstaking process.

“For the last 40 years, pathology analysis of cancer has examined one marker at a time, which provides limited information,” said Drew Pardoll, MD, PhD, Director of the Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and a Johns Hopkins professor of oncology, in the news release. “Leveraging new technology, including instrumentation to image up to 12 markers simultaneously, the AstroPath imaging algorithms provide 1,000 times the information content from a single biopsy than is currently available through routine pathology,” he added.

More information about a cancerous tumor means clinicians have more tools to combat it. Treatment becomes less about finding the right immunotherapy and more about treating it immediately.

“This facilitates precision cancer immunotherapy—identifying the unique features of each patient’s cancer to predict who will respond to a given immunotherapy, such as anti-PD-1, and who will not. In doing so, it also advances diagnostic pathology from uniparameter to multiparameter assays,” Pardoll said.

Big Data and Data Analysis Is the Future of Precision Medicine

The use of data in science is changing how researchers, clinicians, pathologists, and others provide healthcare in the modern world. When it is properly collected and analyzed, data holds the key to precision medicine’s personalized and targeted patient care.

“Big data is changing science. There are applications everywhere, from astronomy to genomics to oceanography,” said Alexander S. Szalay, PhD, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University, and Director of the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science (IDIES), in the news release.

“Data-intensive scientific discovery is a new paradigm. The technical challenge we face is how to get consistent, reproducible results when you collect data at scale. AstroPath is a step towards establishing a universal standard,” he added.

Should AstroPath prove to be a clinically safe and accurate method for developing precision medicine cancer therapies, anatomic pathologists can look forward to exciting new ways to diagnose cancer and determine the best courses of treatment based on each patient’s unique medical needs.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information

Astronomy Meets Pathology to Identify Predictive Biomarkers for Cancer Immunotherapy

Analysis of Multispectral Imaging with the AstroPath Platform Informs Efficacy of PD-1 Blockade

Astronomy Meets Pathology: An Interdisciplinary Effort to Discover Predictive Biomarker Signatures for Immuno-Oncology

From Stars to Cells: Johns Hopkins Researchers Discover Predictive Spatial Phenotypic Signatures with AstroPath

Astronomy and Pathology Join Forces to Predict Immunotherapy Response: Q/A with Spatial Biology Experts

Targeted Cancer Therapies Bring New Precision Medicine Tools to Anatomic Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories

FDA is streamlining how new diagnostic tests are approved; encourages IVD companies to focus on ‘qualifying biomarkers’ in development of new cancer drugs

It is good news for the anatomic pathology profession that new insights into the human immune system are triggering not only a wave of new therapeutic drugs, but also the need for companion diagnostic tests that help physicians decide when it is appropriate to prescribe immunotherapy drugs.

Rapid advances in precision medicine, and the discovery that a patient’s own immune system can be used to suppress chronic disease, have motivated pharmaceutical companies to pursue new research into creating targeted therapies for cancer patients. These therapies are based on a patient’s physiological condition at the time of diagnosis. This is the very definition of precision medicine and it is changing how oncologists, anatomic pathologists, and medical laboratories diagnose and treat cancer and other chronic diseases.

Since immunotherapy drugs require companion diagnostic tests, in vitro diagnostic (IVD) developers and clinical laboratory and pathology group leaders understand the stake they have in pharma companies devoting more research to developing these types of drugs.

New cancer drugs combined with targeted therapies would directly impact the future of anatomic pathology and medical laboratory testing.

Targeted Therapies Cost Less, Work Better

Targeted therapies focus on the mechanisms driving the cancer, rather than on destroying the cancer itself. They are designed to treat cancers that have specific genetic signatures.

One such example of a targeted therapy is pembrolizumab (brand name: Keytruda), a humanized antibody that targets the programmed cell death 1 (PD-1) receptor. The injection drug was primarily designed to treat melanoma. However, the FDA recently expanded its approval of Keytruda to include treatment of tumors with certain genetic qualities, regardless of the tumor’s location in the body. It was the first time the FDA has expanded an existing approval.

In a Forbes article, David Shaywitz, MD, PhD, noted that pembrolizumab had “an unprecedented type of FDA approval … authorizing its use in a wide range of cancers.” Shaywitz is Chief Medical Officer of DNAnexus in Mountain View, Calif.; Visiting Scientist, Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School; and Adjunct Scholar, American Enterprise Institute.

Cancers with high mutational burdens respond to the therapy because they are more likely to have what Shaywitz calls “recognizable novel antigens called mutation-associated neoantigens, or MANAs.” Such cancers include melanomas, non-small cell lung cancer, some rare forms of colorectal cancers, and others.

Such therapies require genetic sequencing, and because sequencing is becoming faster and less expensive—as is the analysis of the sequencing—the information necessary to develop targeted therapies is becoming more accessible, which is part of what’s motivating pharma research.

Biomarkers and Traditional versus Modern Drug Testing and Development

At the same time pharma is developing new immunotherapies, the FDA is recognizing the benefit of faster approvals. In an FDA Voice blog post, Janet Woodcock, MD, Director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) at the FDA, wrote, “In the past three years alone, [we have] approved more than 25 new drugs that benefit patients with specific genetic characteristics … and we have approved many more new uses—also based on specific genetic characteristics—for drugs already on the market.”

In his Forbes article, Shaywitz notes that pembrolizumab’s development foreshadows a “More general trend in the industry,” where the traditional phases of drug testing and development in oncology are becoming less clear and distinct.

Along with the changes to drug development and approval that precision medicine is bringing about, there are also likely to be changes in how cancer patients are tested. For one thing, biomarkers are critical for precision medicine.

However, pharmaceutical companies have not always favored using biomarkers. According to Shaywitz, “In general, commercial teams tend not to favor biomarkers and seek to avoid them wherever possible.” And that, “All things being equal, a doctor would prefer to prescribe a drug immediately, without waiting for a test to be ordered and the results received and interpreted.”

In July, just weeks after expanding its approval for Keytruda, the FDA approved a Thermo Fisher Scientific test called the Oncomine Dx Target Test. A Wired article describes it as “the first next-generation-sequencing-based test” and notes that it “takes a tiny amount of tumor tissue and reports on alterations to 23 different genes.”

Thermo Fisher’s Oncomine DX Target Test (above) is the first multi-drug next-generation sequencing test approved by the FDA. The test is a companion diagnostic for lung-cancer drugs made by Novartis and Pfizer. (Caption and photo copyright: Thermo Fisher Scientific.)

Unlike pembrolizumab, however, the Oncomine Dx Target Test did not enjoy fast-track approval. As Wired reported, “Getting the FDA’s approval took nearly two years and 220,000 pages of data,” in large part because it was the first test to include multiple genes and multiple drugs. Thus, according to Joydeep Goswami, PhD, President of Clinical Next Generation Sequencing at Thermo Fisher, “That put the technology under extraordinary scrutiny.”

FDA Encouraging Use of Biomarkers in Precision Medicine Therapies

The FDA, however, is taking steps to make that process easier. Woodcock noted in her FDA Voice blog post that the agency is actively encouraging drug developers to “use strategies based on biomarkers.” She added that the FDA currently “works with stakeholders and scientific consortia in qualifying biomarkers that can be used in the development of many drugs.”

Additionally, in a column he penned for Wired, Robert M. Califf, MD, former Commissioner of the FDA, states that the organization has “begun to lay out a flexible roadmap for regulatory approval.” He notes, “Given the complexity of NGS [next-generation-sequencing] technology, test developers need assurance as well, and we’ve tried to reduce uncertainty in the process.”

Regulations that assist IVD developers create viable diagnostics, while ensuring the tests are accurate and valid, will be nearly as important in the age of precision medicine as the therapies themselves.

All of these developmental and regulatory changes will impact the work done by pathologists and medical laboratories. And since precision medicine means finding the right drug for the individual patient, then monitoring its progress, all of the necessary tests will be conducted by clinical laboratories.

Faster approvals for these new drugs and tests will likely mean steep learning curves for pathologists. But if the streamlined regulation process being considered by the FDA works, new immunoassay tests and targeted therapies could mean improved outcomes for cancer patients.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

How Precision Medicine, Immunotherapy Are Influencing Clinical Trial Design for Cancer Drugs

Pharma Cooperates to Achieve Precision Medicine

The Startling History Behind Merck’s New Cancer Blockbuster

Two Recent Scientific Advances Underscore an Encouraging Future for Precision Medicine at FDA

Fast, Precise Cancer Care Is Coming to a Hospital Near You

Biomarker Trends Are Auspicious for Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories

Precision Healthcare Milestone Reached as Food and Drug Administration Clears New Multi-Marker Medical Laboratory Test to Detect Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Genetic Tests and Precision Medicine Start to Win Acceptance by Some Payers; Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories Have Opportunity as Advisors

Predicted Growth for In Vitro Diagnostics Markets Globally Signals Upward Trajectory in Medical Laboratory Business

Growth in global IVD markets is indicator of increasing demand for clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology testing

During the next 24 months, the global in vitro diagnostics (IVD) market is predicted to exceed $50-billion in revenues. However, this robust growth has an upside and a downside for the clinical laboratories and pathology groups that purchase IVD analyzers, reagents, and consumables.

In a recent story in about the IVD industry, Frost & Sullivan, a global consulting and research firm, made predictions in different segments of the IVD market. It won’t surprise pathologists and clinical laboratory managers that the two fastest-growing segments are molecular and tissue diagnostics. (more…)