Stony Brook’s Saltz uses math to combat cancer

Stony Brook’s Saltz uses math to combat cancer

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Joel Saltz lives in a world of numbers. The first chairman of biomedical informatics at Stony Brook recently hit a number that will help him continue to develop a department he arrived to lead last year: $3.2 million. That’s how much the National Cancer Institute pledged to support Saltz’s efforts.

“This grant is related to developing methods and tools for analyzing tissue data, in particular pathology, as it relates to genetics and genomics,” Saltz said. That means he will try to understand more about the complex patterns of interactions between cancer cells, surrounding and distant tissues. By studying these interactions, Saltz and his collaborators hope to help develop diagnostic and treatment methods.

A powerful enemy with ways of evading different kinds of treatment, cancer can present prognoses that vary from one person to another — even when the cancer is in the same area or affects the same organs or systems.

“In some cases, the relationship varies from one part of the tumor to another,” said Saltz. “If one part of the tumor has ‘x,’ they treat it like ‘x,’ but if it has some ‘y,’ the heterogeneity can be indicative of another diagnosis. What you want to do is look at the distribution of proteins or nucleic acids, and then do an image analysis.”

Saltz has programmed computers to scan tumors to get a consistent, quick and reproducible understanding of the underlying cancer or tumors. This effort will provide data that the international community of academic and commercial algorithm developers can study.

This effort to count different types of cells to get a mathematical handle on the type of disease can “reduce the variability from one pathologist to another,” Saltz said. “That is critical for any study.” He also hopes to learn new relationships among various components that may not be obvious.

By understanding the nature of the specific cancer, scientists and doctors hope to get a better handle on a specific treatment for each patient.

Saltz is “working with a number of translational researchers” who have patient populations or are working with animal models of cancer, he said.

The kind of analysis Saltz does in his biomedical informatics world may eventually lead to individualized or precision medicine. At this point, this is a longer-term hope for the effort.

Saltz described the process as taking an image analysis and adding a machine learning component. While convinced of the value of this type of computer-aided analysis, Saltz is not advocating developing a diagnostic or treatment regime by relying exclusively on the analysis of a computer.

“The sort of information a machine can give you complements what two people trained in different parts of the country” conclude, he said. “It can help reduce the level of unanticipated disagreement.”

At this point, these methods are not directly used to treat patients. They are a part of a research effort to improve the quality of the scientific studies.

Saltz credited Ken Kaushansky, the dean of the School of Medicine, with committing Stony Brook to integrate the latest research into improvements in the care and treatment of patients.

Other Stony Brook scientists shared their appreciation for Saltz’s approach. Saltz “brings in unique and urgently needed expertise in cancer informatics,” said Yusuf Hannun, the director of the Stony Brook Cancer Center. “This is a discipline engaged in collating, organizing and analyzing large data sets obtained in the course of cancer studies. Saltz brings internationally recognized expertise in this field.”

Saltz said there were numerous steps researchers needed to take before this approach has a clinical application.

To build out the expertise in biomedical informatics at Stony Brook, Saltz is applying to add a Ph.D., Master’s and certificate program. He said the program will build a bridge between pathology and computer science.

A resident of Huntington, Saltz moved to Long Island with his wife Mary, a clinical associate professor of radiology. The couple have four children, who range in age from 19 to 26.

Saltz said he was impressed with the natural beauty of Long Island. He had visited the area before when his brother, David Saltz, who is now at the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Georgia, worked at Stony Brook from 1994 to 1996.

As for his work, Saltz said he is “delighted” with the NCI grant. “We’ve got a great team.”