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Tomorrow Today

Can information technology help make the world a healthier place?

Our studio guest is Alexander Kühn, a Berlin-based bioinformatician

DW:
Dr. Alexander Kühn dreams of a computer-based patient. What is a virtual patient exactly?


Alexander Kühn:
A virtual patient is a large computer model containing all signalling pathways relevant in cancer development. And we put all this information together and feed this model with personalized genome data we get from the patient - and his tumor - and then we can use this individualized model to predict the effects of different drugs.

That's amazing. Now that means it's possible to put our biology into a computer model?

That's right. We have a generic cancer model and by adding your personal information - genome information - you can create a personalized cancer model. And using this personalized model we can find the best treatment for you.

Now of course I do trust you and believe you, but we've been promised for about 40 or 50 years ago that cancer would be healed very soon. Will you be able to do it?

Well, I'm not sure if we can really help heal every cancer patient, but I strongly believe that we can do it much better than what is possible right now. And we have some promising results in some research projects where we already treated some patients according to our predictions.

OK, I mean so far we've been treating cancer according to the type of cancer you had. A colon cancer you were treating with special medication, breast cancer, and so on. Is that your approch, too?

No, we take a different approach. What we do is we treat - we take every cancer as an individual cancer, an individual disease. So for us it doesn't matter whether a tumor originates in the breast or prostate or colon. So we use every patient as their own control and we only look at the molecular data.

And are you successful with what you're doing?

Well, as I said, we have some research projects and one patient was for example treated by a rheumatoid arthritis drug the best via our predictions.

That means you could also find completely new therapies.

Exactly. We have to go away from the old scheme that breast cancer is always treated by that drug - and colon cancer is always treated by that drug. We need to find for every single patient his own drug.

This is personalized medicine. And how will that actually influence medical research? Will we still need clinical studies - or can you do all of it in the computer?

We will need clinical studies, but I think clinical studies will change a lot. In the future we will do much more of clinical studies in the computer via so-called virtual clinical trials.

We all hope very much that you will be very successful. Thanks a lot for the talk, Alexander Kühn.

(Interview: Ingolf Baur)