When Astrophysics & Melanoma Collide

By Cody Barnett, MPH, MRA Senior Director of Communications & Patient Engagement | 16 November 2018 | Science

Astronomy and Melanoma

From fortune cookies to crystal balls, the allure and power of knowing the future is almost irresistible. That’s because with just a little foresight, we could all make better choices. Who wouldn’t want to know if a bit more studying is actually needed to pass the test, if the home team is on the road to victory, or—in the case of melanoma—if a particular treatment is likely to work. The latter is exactly what Dr. Janis Taube, a dermatopathologist at Johns Hopkins University, is hoping to do. However, instead of a crystal ball, Taube and her team are tapping the power of ‘big data’ and lessons learned in astrophysics to better predict melanoma treatment outcomes.

To most melanoma patients, a pathologist is the person who examines a biopsy of their tumor to determine if it is malignant or benign. Doctors trained as a dermatopathologists, like Dr. Taube, specialize in diseases that affect the skin at a microscopic or even molecular level. “We are largely behind the scenes, but our work is a very important part of your diagnosis,” says Dr. Taube. 

Being able to predict a patient’s response to a specific treatment is important because it can protect patients from exposure to a medication that isn’t likely to work, help get the patient into the right treatment as quickly as possible, save money, and can give insight into combining various therapeutic approaches in a rational way. 

Dr. Taube’s work focuses on better understanding which patients are likely to respond to any given immunotherapy by looking at cells of the immune system and the tumor itself. As a pathologist, she has a ‘birds eye view’ of the battle between cancer and the immune system. This gives her critical insight into not only what cells are present but also where they are in relation to one another – something overlooked by other approaches.

When Taube looks at a tumor sample, she is able to tell if the immune system is activated, if it has successfully infiltrated a tumor, or if the tumor has created a shield that will keep it safe from attack. This perspective can help inform how best to treat melanoma.

In pathology, fluorescent dyes are an important tool of the trade. They are used to highlight specific parts of the immune system, such as different cell types or proteins, to shed light on how they interact with each other and melanoma. While relatively simple when looking at one or two variables, this approach can quickly become complicated as you add additional dyes representing other biomarkers. 

For example, in Taube’s work to predict response to specific treatments, she is focused on 20-30 different biomarkers, each coded to their own fluorescent dye. The colors blur and can even overlap in their color spectra. Decoding the massive amount of data the colors represent becomes incredibly difficult.

This challenge is new in pathology, but it isn’t in astrophysics. Fortunately, the team, led by Dr. Alexander Szalay, that manages and interprets images and data from the Deep Sky Survey and the Hubble Space Telescope is also located at Johns Hopkins University. Szalay’s team has created the most detailed 3D maps of the universe ever made, and in comparison, mapping the comparatively fixed and unmoving pathology slides (with no weather interference!) that interested Taube seemed easy.

Using lessons, processes, and tools from the field of astrophysics, Taube has dramatically accelerated the collection and analysis of data needed to create and refine a multifactorial model that she hopes will predict treatment outcomes.

 Astrophyics and melanoma

The road ahead is still long. After creating her statistical model, it will then be validated using a separate cohort of patients to see if its predictions hold true. Finally, the validated model will be applied to a group of “hard to treat” patients, such as those who are immunosuppressed because of an organ transplant, to determine if they would be good candidates for anti-PD-1 treatment.

This work would not be possible without the deep, cross-sector collaboration between Taube and Szalay. “Who knew that astronomy had so much to offer us? Dr. Szalay’s approach to 21st century data access changed the way the world did astronomy, and I really hope that we’ll be another model [of big data sharing] for communities in science,” says Taube.