David Whitcomb, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine, cell biology and physiology and human genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has done extensive studies on the genetic basis of pancreatic cancer, the fifth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. He is excited about the human genetics cluster's capacity to increase productivity on these studies, as well as others he is pursuing on pancreatitis recurrent inflammation of the pancreas that can lead to pancreatic cancer.
"Most disease is caused by a combination of genetic mutations and environmental stress," said Dr. Whitcomb, who also is chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition and director of the Center for Genomic Studies. "Such a combination might give an individual 500 times the average risk of a given disease in the general population or more."
Trying to sort out genuine risk from arbitrary observation stretches the limits of old statistical methods, Dr. Whitcomb added.
"We are looking at the possible interactions of multiple genes and environmental factors in our group of patients," he said. "There are thousands of possible genetic and environmental factors that might combine to result in disease. The computer can help to predict which factors are disease-causing and which are innocent bystanders."
This is done by simulating an entire population of people and "testing" a group of imaginary patients with laboratory results from actual patients tens of thousands of times, explained Dr. Whitcomb. Eventually, the computer is able to sort out the genetic and environmental factors that may cause complex diseases.
"With older computers, these complex calculations can take weeks," he said. "Insights into the factors that contribute to diseases give us targets for effective therapy. The new Gattaca Cluster is a terrific tool to help