Harnessing Systems Biology to Fight a Fatal Cancer

Using new methods of research, the University of Chicago is employing a “systems biology’’ approach to unravel t-AML’s full genomic complexity. Systems-level approaches in research are transforming science because they represent a departure from the traditional reductionist approach, in which scientists break down complex systems into their basic elements, for example, organs, cells and molecules, to understand their role and function. The traditional approach remains a foundation for scientific research, but does not allow us to understand what happens when these individual elements interact in a complex system. For example, it does not allow us to understand how dozens or even hundreds of genes interact with the environment to cause cancer and other diseases. Complex gene networks, biologists have realized, are impossible to decipher without a systems-level research approach.

Systems biology increases the power of life sciences.

Systems biology increases the power of life sciences, enabling researchers to understand complex biological systems so that they can pinpoint slight variations in normal cellular regulation resulting from genetic abnormalities, external environmental influences, or both. These slight variations are what open the door to disease. The University of Chicago’s Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology is pioneering a systems biology approach to genomics – the study of the entire human genome and the function of our genes — to design highly-individualized strategies for treating complex diseases, like cancer. We are at the forefront of this genomics revolution, which will transform medicine and allow physicians to routinely use genetic tests to prevent disease in the first place and tailor treatments to each individual patient.

Research in systems biology is fast. Automated lab machines work around the clock to sequence DNA and track gene interactions. The resulting set of raw data, however, is far too large for any person to analyze all of the molecular interactions involved in, for example, healthy blood production, and how it is altered in malignant states. That task is performed by fast computers which have been programmed to model systems of molecular interactions, efficiently determine how they work, and predict ways to avoid or disrupt disease processes with new therapies. With new advances in genomics, computer technology, and informatics, we now have the tools to collect, store, and analyze huge amounts of data required to understand these thousands of interacting, interdependent genetic mechanisms as a whole.

To date, no other institution has used a systems biology approach to analyze leukemia. The University of Chicago’s world-renowned leukemia team is pioneering this project in partnership with the Cancer Research Foundation to decipher the genetic complexities of t-AML. A large and highly-diversified team of scientists and clinicians, as well as significant investment in laboratory and computational resources is required to accomplish this goal. Support from the Cancer Research Foundation and additional philanthropic sources will advance the treatment of leukemia, leading to more effective and personalized therapies.