A nationwide team of researchers, clinicians and industry partners is developing a system for diagnosing specific types of lymphoma to help doctors deliver targeted treatments.

Each year, around 12,000 patients are diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects white blood cells.

In fact, although they are grouped under a common name, there are many different kinds of lymphoma. Around half of these will respond to standard chemotherapy, but the remainder need to be treated with new types of therapy alongside conventional drugs.

A targeted approach could clearly make a huge difference to successful treatment, but doctors need methods for determining what type of disease each patient has to help them make the right decisions.

Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA) is a key partner in the Precision Medicine Consortium, led by the University of Southampton and funded by the charity, Bloodwise. Its aim is to develop methods of characterising large B cell lymphomas – the largest group of lymphomas – to make the diagnostic process more efficient and establish ways to identify patients who might benefit from new therapies.

Project partners, including the Universities of Southampton, Cambridge and York, Oxford Biomedical Research Centre and Barts Cancer Institute analysed blood and tissue samples from over 1000 lymphoma patients. They were able to pinpoint particular genes, genetic mutations and chromosomal abnormalities that might be useful in identifying particular types of lymphoma.

A team at LIDA, led by Professor David Westhead, then used machine learning to understand which elements of the data provides the most accurate profile of the disease – and predicts most accurately how it will respond to specific treatments.

Using this information, the team created a digital platform that can be used to rapidly screen selected genetic information to identify subgroups of large B cell lymphoma and determine which types might be targeted with new therapies.

Professor David Westhead, of Leeds Institute for Data Analytics explains: “Personalised medicine, where individual patients receive treatment that is designed specifically to target the type and the severity of their disease, is becoming increasingly important in all areas of medical research.

“Pharmaceutical companies are starting to develop treatments that can be targeted to patients with particular disease types – so we need to know how we can use genomic data to identify which patients might benefit from these. Our aim, in this programme, is to take incredibly complex data sets and essentially divide them into categories that will help determine what type of treatment a patient should receive.”

Alongside this work, a team from the Oxford Health Economics Research Centre, led by Dr Sarah Wadsworth, has been carrying out a detailed economic evaluation of the process, to demonstrate whether it will be a cost-effective option for health service providers such as the NHS to adopt.

The platform is currently being tested in a large clinical trial – the first of its kind to use genomic data to inform treatment decisions.

“What’s really powerful about the techniques we’ve developed is the speed at which we can analyse the data,” says Professor Westhead. “We’re able to produce genomic data for a patient in real time and turn it around quickly enough to be able to use that data to influence treatment decisions.”