IBM to Use Computer Science to Fight Cancer


We all know that Vice President Joe Biden is spearheading a movement wherein big data is harnessed to accelerate the development of cures for cancer. In a similar take, IBM has also planned to launch a cancer initiative by leveraging the power of computer technology. IBM has partnered with four schools – Stanford University, San Francisco State University and University of California (San Francisco and Berkeley) to spearhead this research coined as “cellular engineering.”

The idea behind this venture by IBM is to focus on the morphology of the cancer cells. Eventually they hope to identify the root cause of cancer by using cutting edge computer technology.

Simone Bianco, an Italian Physicist working in the Department of Industrial and Applied Genomics at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Francisco told

“Understanding that process could lead to new ways of detecting and controlling the disease.”

To further answer how IBM chooses to implement this, Bianco said:

“If you think about cancer, whenever there is a suspected tumor, there is a biopsy, and essentially the cells are imaged. Then a pathologist looks at the images and he says, “well the nucleus of the cell is bean-shaped,” or “the nucleus is too big.” Then he uses prior knowledge to correlate those images to a diagnosis and a prognosis. But if we wanted to characterize the state of those specific cells using genetics, and monitor the activity of those cells over time, it would be incredibly hard.”

Bianca says IBM’s plan is to find new ways to do this by using physics, mathematics and computer science, aided by large health datasets that are now available. Furthermore cellular engineering will aid researchers in get closer to their goal of understanding the root cause of cancer by using the morphology of the cell as a way to understand its state and function. This would mean that researchers would be able to study a cell that is already inflicted with cancer and also where one is developing to become a cancer cell.

How, you may wonder?

Even before a cell becomes cancerous, it goes through a myriad of changes morphologically and eventually activates its “oncogenes” to develop into a cancer cell. Since this change is a micro-evolutionary process, cellular engineering will be able to study the cause behind the change even better.

The team looks to study various morphological structures, understand their size and volume and then use this data to create models. The models will eventually help researchers predict what path a specific cell might take.

Answering a question to Forbes about the other uses of cellular engineering beyond cancer, Bianco replied:

“There are a number of openings that this field would create. The principle of it can be expanded to every cell. For example, there is a specific correlation between the morphology of a cell and its exposure to a foreign object, like a heavy metal or a toxin.”

IBM’s cellular engineering is all set to open new doors in the field of oncology. The correlation between the morphology of cells and their interaction with foreign objects will be a cheap and effective way of spotting even large cases of contamination.


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