Meet the Team: Alexandre Irrthum, PhD

Intro text: 


Please tell us about yourself.

I’m from Belgium where I graduated as a bioengineer and obtained a PhD in human molecular genetics. My postdoctoral work, in the UK and in Belgium, involved cancer genetics and the application of bioinformatics to biological and medical problems. I’ve been working for the Breast International Group as a bioinformatician and geneticist for a few years now.

What is your role in the Metastatic GPS programme?

My role in the project is twofold. On the one hand, I coordinate the development of the AURORA IT platform. This platform is used to register the patients, to obtain and integrate their molecular data, obtained from an external laboratory, and to report these data to the treating physician. On the other hand, I chair the AURORA Molecular Advisory Board, the committee of experts that provides tailored annotations and recommendations related to the molecular aberrations that are detected in patients.

What is unique about the AURORA information technology platform?

What makes the AURORA IT platform unique is directly related to what makes the whole AURORA programme unique: a focus on metastatic breast cancer. In many other molecular profiling programmes, a single tumour sample is molecularly characterized. In the AURORA programme, by contrast, we sequence a sample from the primary tumour and a biopsy from a metastatic lesion, in addition to the blood. This provides a very detailed view of the “molecular identity card” of the disease and the integrated reporting of this information on the AURORA IT platform is quite innovative. Finally, I think that we achieved to make the AURORA IT platform very intuitive for the users.

How does this platform help the programme achieve its goals?

Running the AURORA programme, which will enrol a thousand patients, would simply not be feasible without the IT platform. It will involve thousands of information exchanges between the hospitals, the sequencing laboratory and the platform, something unmanageable manually. It will also identify tens of thousands of mutations in the patients’ tumours, making it necessary to extract the clinically relevant ones and to report them to the treating physicians in the most meaningful way, incorporating the input from the Molecular Advisory Board. The AURORA platform allows all this.

How does the platform support data sharing among researchers?

Data sharing between researchers is crucial to accelerate progress. In the case of AURORA, having clinical and molecular data integrated on a central platform is an important first step in this direction. We can envisage bulk data transfer in the future, but also allow IT platforms from partner research organizations to securely interrogate the AURORA platform, extracting information relevant to their own research. Nevertheless, some challenges remain, from the standardization of data with other sequencing platforms to the management and transfer of the voluminous raw data that is produced. We are working with our partners internationally to address these challenges.

How will patients benefit from the work you are doing?

The patients will benefit from the work I am doing, and the work that all my colleagues involved in AURORA are doing, in two ways, one for the short term and one for the long term. For the short term, patients participating in AURORA and their treating physicians will gain a better understanding of the molecular aberrations underlying the disease. In some cases, this might lead to new treatment options, like the enrolment in a clinical trial that targets a specific molecular aberration. For the long term, the increased understanding of metastatic breast cancer that AURORA will bring is likely to foster the development of new therapies that will benefit many patients.

What will be the long term impact of this research programme in your opinion?

Although molecular profiling programmes in oncology are getting more common, they are still at the forefront of clinical practice, with many remaining unknowns. Besides greatly advancing our understanding of metastatic breast cancer, AURORA will provide us with a wealth of extremely valuable information about how to run such a programme. This information will surely inform the development of similar initiatives in the future.