How data is helping to select the best new cancer treatments for patients

Dr Bissan
Insight and innovation: Dr Bissan is helping to change the future of cancer treatments through data

Gifts left in wills help Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani and her team look at vast amounts of data which can aid them in identifying the best new cancer treatments for patients.

When I was little, I loved computers and biology. I’d have as much fun playing on my ZX Spectrum as I did from learning about how life worked. So it made sense to pursue both areas. I got a first degree in biology and a master’s in computing science. I then combined my passions with a PhD in computational biology from Cambridge University, and follow-on training in computational biophysics in New York. 

I joined the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, in 2009 to set up and lead the computational biology team. There’s so much incredible research going on in the UK and around the world. One of the best things about my field is being able to use computers to look at the vast amounts of data generated – the big picture. Computers help us derive general patterns from this data – for example, what might be the causes of certain cancers, and help us to develop new drugs. 

In the past 10 years, we have made huge strides in discovering therapies as a result of understanding cancer at a molecular level. The challenge is to decide which cancer drug targets show the most promise and should be prioritised for development. We use artificial intelligence to select the best drug targets by combining DNA data from tens of thousands of patients with billions of results from lab experiments. 

We can’t do everything on our own. Thanks to Cancer Research UK’s investment, I have led the development of the world’s largest cancer knowledge database, canSAR, and this powerful tool is available and free for any researcher around the world to use. This ‘global democratisation’ of information greatly increases the odds of beating cancer

Used by more than 170,000 researchers worldwide, one of canSAR’s biggest strengths is providing big-picture data to help us select the best targets for drug discovery and get new treatments to patients more quickly. We have used it to help us start several drug-discovery projects, and it is also supporting other teams across the world in exploring new treatments that would have been ignored. 

When not immersed in big data, I’m training for a private pilot’s licence. I hope to fly a seaplane: they really open up the world – the ultimate in no-horizon travel. I feel the same about my work. Thanks to legacies left in wills, there are no limits to where we can go. 

Leave a life-changing legacy

Legacy gifts fund more than a third of Cancer Research UK’s research, leading to cutting-edge technology, kinder treatments and new tests to help beat cancer sooner. Call 0800 035 9000 for a free information pack or for details, visit cruk.org/legacies