CanSAR: Where Leonardo led, computers can help us to follow

The history of human progress is studded with examples of brilliance ranging breathtakingly wide

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Leonardo da Vinci designed siege engines, invented the rolling mill and, of course, painted the Mona Lisa. Benjamin Franklin helped lay the foundations of a new republic, and also established the first national postal service and devised the lightning rod. Robert Hooke’s talents covered everything from the astronomical to the microscopic, from physics to cartography. The history of human progress is studded with examples of brilliance ranging breathtakingly wide. With no disrespect to the geniuses of the past, it must have helped that for centuries a sufficiently dedicated and able scholar could master the sum total of human knowledge.

Not any more. The polymath Thomas Young has been called “the last man who knew everything” – and he died in 1829. Now, after several hundred years of unstinting scientific endeavour, it is not only impossible to know everything, it is rarely feasible to encompass even one field of study. And it is no disrespect to the geniuses of the present to lament the connections not noticed, and discoveries not made, as a result.

When it comes to the development of new cancer drugs, scientists have developed a system called CanSAR to throw the full force of modern computing at the problem.

There are already several vast databases of genetic information. But the process of isolating cancer-influencing genes that might help develop new drugs is still often little better than trial and error, with potentially thousands of different sections of DNA to choose from.

What CanSAR does – using a database so powerful that it can process more data than that produced by the Hubble telescope in a million years – is match genetic research from across what may be entirely unrelated scientific disciplines in order to narrow the selection. In one case, a list of 500 genes was reduced to just 46 – dramatically reducing the cost of new treatments and the time taken to develop them.

CanSAR may seem a world away from the free-ranging inspirations of Leonardo but the principle is the same. The British scientists who developed it are to be applauded.

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