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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