Defining Moment #3: Students enlisted to help in breast cancer fight

Return to "Defining Moments" main page. They may not be analyzing genes, conducting clinical studies, or developing new treatment therapies, but the work done by two recent Purdue University College of Technology students may prove to be a key weapon in the battle against one of the most dreaded diseases. Chris Dix and Phil Schultheis, both 2011 computer and information technology graduates, have been using their skills in database and web application development to create a virtual tissue bank for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Cancer Center (KTB). The KTB was created in response to a need articulated by scientists carrying out breast cancer research. It is the only repository in the world set up to collect normal, healthy breast tissue, whole blood, DNA, plasma and serum.

The virtual bank designed by the Purdue students will allow the tissue bank’s specimen data, which is stored in a large database, to be accessed online through a web portal. Having the data in virtual form will allow researchers around the world to search for tissues that meet their needs, and to conduct multiple experiments in silico. The Komen Tissue Bank and its specimens have many scientific purposes. “In order to begin to understand breast cancer, we need to understand normal breast biology,” said Susan Clare, MD, PhD, co-principal investigator of the Bank. “It’s important because the breast is a very complex organ. It changes constantly, from prepubescent to puberty to pregnancy to breastfeeding to menopause. Additionally, we use normal tissue as controls in breast cancer experiments; by comparing cancer to normal we can pinpoint what is abnormal about a cancer cell. The virtual tissue bank will let researchers all across the globe, even in underdeveloped countries where there is limited research funding, do research without access to actual specimens.” “There are already a number of places where you can obtain breast cancer cells. Now you will be able to come to KTB, obtain specimens or data, and compare your research results in cancerous specimens to healthy breast tissue to confirm or deny your findings.” Finding the right developers After Susan G. Komen for the Cure received a $1 million grant from Oracle last year for the purpose of creating a virtual tissue bank, the KTB team began looking for developers who could make the project come to life. That’s when Clare met Purdue CIT Professor John Springer. “It was perfect timing,” said Clare. “We had a need for his abilities and we had the funding. He was enthusiastic. I can’t imagine this working out any better. To have the need and the skillset within an hour’s drive, it’s been a wonderful effort.” Dix and Schultheis were the ideal candidates for Springer to bring onto his team. They both interned with Cisco Systems last summer, giving them the relevant skills in Oracle Application Express, a rapid Web application development tool for Oracle Database that is driving the project. “Oracle Application Express supports rapid application development. It creates a web interface to connect with a database,” said Dix, a native of Kent, Ohio. “If you understand Structured Query Language, you can develop queries and access the web. It helps facilitate repository information. It puts it into a design that’s easier for people to understand.” Real projects with real results Both students appreciated the opportunity to connect with relevant, practical projects and engage with an actual client while still in college. It has proven helpful as they head back to Cisco to begin their careers this summer. “It’s important as a student to get real-world experience, to solve a problem,” said Dix. “It tests you, allows you to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. It also creates more interest in the project. I can actually have real people who will benefit from this.” This type of project is indicative of what the CIT major is all about, said Schultheis, combining the technical skills with solution-driven, real-world application. “A project in a typical college class is just going to sit on a hard drive somewhere. You put in a lot of work, but you don’t do anything with it,” he said. “For a lot of our projects, and every CIT class, you have to translate what the business does into an applicable product. You need the technical skills — database, programming languages — but all the communication and business background is just as important. It’s something that will help you in the long run.” Springer agrees. “Class projects are typically simpler. [Students] aren’t experts. They can only go so deep because you only have so much knowledge and time. Here, the students have been set down in the problem. They have to get up to speed and it has to be enough to go on. These are problems that they will encounter once they leave here. There’s a budget, working on a real deadline, working for a real client.” While Schultheis was drawn to the project to hone his project management skills and learn more about the software application, the Evansville, Ind., native recognizes that the impact goes beyond the personal benefit. “This is going to help people, make a difference for breast cancer. It’s a big deal to have this central database,” he said. “People in third world countries can now run a query and compare data. Hopefully this will advance cancer research and help find a cure.” Even the professor has felt the rewards of the experience. “I’ve talked with the advocates and the survivors. They give you a whole new sense of the value of what you are doing. In an era where we are so concerned about privacy, they understand the value of these repositories. It’s a cure for cancer they all seek. To be a part of that is rewarding and inspirational.” Clare is glad that the partnership has been mutually beneficial and that KTB could provide this learning experience to Dix and Schultheis. “I’ve met with the students. I had a sense they had excitement and pride in doing this. It’s real meaning in the real world. It’s advancing our understanding of breast cancer, hopefully leading to a cure or prevention,” said Clare. “As a part of the Oracle grant, we are provided with experts from Oracle, who fly in to Indiana to help with the project. One of them spent a week in West Lafayette in March. The students get to rub shoulders with them and get their insights. It makes me pleased that we were able to do that for them (Dix and Schultheis). The Oracle consultant was greatly impressed with the students and their skills.” A prototype for the virtual tissue bank has already been created and presented to KTB for their review. The plan is to launch the completed project by the end of January 2012. The sooner the better, according to Clare. “The community [fighting breast cancer] is impatient and tired of waiting for progress in finding a cure or a preventative,” she said. (Photo: Chris Dix and Phil Schultheis now work together at Cisco in North Carolina, where this photo was taken.)