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Cancer Research: A Supercomputing Perspective

Published on May 1, 2017 by Aaron Dubrow

A computationally-derived volume rendering of a canine anatomy used to guide laser prostate surgery. Supercomputers help researchers and doctors plan cancer treatments, discover new drugs and explore new therapeutic methods. [Image courtesy of David Fuentes, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]

Approximately 40 percent of men and women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes, and there is a one in five chance that the illness will be terminal.

This isn't meant to depress, it's just a fact of life in 21st century America. Cancer, the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease, kills more than 500,000 citizens per year, including almost 2,000 children.

In 1971, more than 45 years ago, President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, saying: "The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal."

And yet the number of cases continued to rise.

Last year, Vice-President Joe Biden made a similar declaration when he launched the Cancer Moonshot: "I know that we can help solidify a genuine global commitment to end cancer as we know it today β€Šβ€” β€Šand inspire a new generation of scientists to pursue new discoveries and the bounds of human endeavor."

Snapshots of a tumor model with tumor cells growing in a healthy tissue at two time points and under different nutrient conditions. Advanced computing is helping researchers mathematize cancer in order to develop patient-specific treatments based on an individual tumor. (Rocha et. al. 2017).

These efforts are beginning to pay off.

Developments in diagnostics, imaging, treatments and basic knowledge have put us on the cusp of making a real impact on cancer fatalities. Meanwhile, new approaches, from immunotherapy to proton therapy have further improved the outcomes of those diagnosed with the disease.

"The mortality rate in cancer has been declining since about 2000, so we are doing something right," said Warren Kibbe, acting deputy director of the National Cancer Institute at the 2016 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis. "But it's clear we need to understand more about basic biology."

A host of questions remain unanswered, both about cancer's underlying mechanisms and about the best way to fight it.

To address these questions, scientists frequently turn to supercomputers β€” possibly the most advanced, general-purpose, scientific instruments ever developed.

Images from a computer simulation of the quantum processes at work during proton cancer therapy. The image shows prototypical proton-induced DNA damage reactions. Advanced computing is needed to explore phenomenon too small or too fast to study experimentally. [Courtesy: Jorge Morales, Texas Tech University]
Biden recognized the central role of supercomputing in the first report of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, identifying several ways that advanced computing is critical for the overall effort.

Ernie Monitz, then U.S. Secretary of Energy, went further, writing in Medium: "Supercomputers are key to the Cancer Moonshot. These exceptionally high-powered machines have the potential to greatly accelerate the development of cancer therapies by finding patterns in massive datasets too large for human analysis. Supercomputers can help us better understand the complexity of cancer development, identify novel and effective treatments, and help elucidate patterns in vast and complex data sets that advance our understanding of cancer."

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas at Austin hosts several of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, geared towards helping the nation's researchers explore problems that they couldn't otherwise tackle.

If scientists are the rocket in the cancer moonshot, computing power is the jet fuel.

In the coming weeks, we'll be highlighting the diverse ways TACC is helping oncologists, surgeons and computer scientists improve our fundamental understanding of cancer and our methods for diagnosing and treating the disease.

This feature is part of a TACC Special Report on Cancer. From patient-specific treatments to immunology to drug discovery, advanced computing accelerates basic and applied science. Learn more about how supercomputers are being used in the fight against cancer.

Read more Cancer Special Report Features


Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor | 512-475-9411