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Cracking the cancer code

Annual Report - Annual Report - Winter 2014

By Hilary Graham

Cancer is a genomic disease, and Harshad Mahadeshwar’s job is to decode its weaknesses.

Drawn to cutting-edge technology, Mahadeshwar, scientist, traveled from Mumbai, India, to Lubbock, Texas, for his graduate studies at Texas Tech University. There he worked to identify genomic signatures that vary between species of mammals. His objective was to better understand the gene material’s evolutionary descent.

Harshad Mahadeshwar
Photographer: Wyatt McSpadden

Mahadeshwar used sequencing technology to read the genetic code letter by letter. He also used bioinformatic tools to interpret the massive amounts of data and provide important insights. The skills he acquired in West Texas were directly transferable to the work he does today. Expanding upon his graduate training, he soon found himself transitioning from basic science to applied research at a biotechnology company and then at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Since joining MD Anderson two years ago, Mahadeshwar has supported sequencing efforts for the Cancer Genome Atlas, a research program that identifies cancer-causing genomic mutations, and for the Moon Shots Program’s APOLLO platform.

Mahadeshwar captains a suite of advanced instrumentation that integrates sample preparation automation with next-generation sequencing technology. In just five days, he can process approximately 100 patient samples for research studies. In comparison, it took researchers nearly a decade to complete the Human Genome Project, in which just one genome was sequenced. But sequencing the human genome is just the beginning. The real challenge is uncovering and interpreting the genetic changes that lead to disease.

DNA from matched patient samples (both cancerous and non-cancerous) is sequenced and then analyzed by bioinformaticians, who specialize in managing and interpreting large amounts of data. These information experts identify genes altered in the cancer sequence, which furthers the understanding of cancer genomics, supports drug discovery efforts and improves human health.

Other moon shot targets

In addition to the innovative work supporting the Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) Moon Shot, five other teams of MD Anderson researchers and clinicians are carrying out comprehensive assaults on six other cancers:

  • chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • melanoma
  • lung cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • triple-negative breast and high-grade serous ovarian cancers

Each moon shot team’s projects are prioritized for greatest patient impact. They range from basic and translational research and biomarker-driven novel clinical trials to prevention, education and research.

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