2005 Science and Environment Recipient: Subhashree Madhavan and the Rembrandt Project Team

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In 2005, cancer surpassed heart disease as the number one killer in the United States among people under the age of 85. One of the biggest obstacles to breakthroughs in cancer treatment has been insufficient information sharing between clinicians and researchers. A team from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) led by Dr. Subhashree Madhavan has begun a new effort that stands to break down the barriers to information sharing and revolutionize the way we conduct cancer research, moving us closer to the goal of reducing suffering and death due to cancer. This project, known as Rembrandt (Repository for Molecular BRAin Neoplasia DaTa), is a joint initiative of NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Rembrandt is designed to bridge the gap between biological and clinical information on brain cancer. It is a database that will house two sets of valuable data. The first set comes from a National Cancer Institute-sponsored clinical trial and the largest genetic/clinical corollary study ever conducted on brain tumors. As part of this trial, hundreds of brain tumor surgery patients throughout the country are having samples of their tumors sent to NCI for exhaustive genetic and molecular analysis, and the findings will ultimately be correlated with the clinical course of the individual patient. The second type of data to be housed in the database is a wide array of molecular and genetic data regarding all types of brain tumors. Understanding the biology behind these tumors and overlaying this valuable data on clinical data will provide clues to discover new therapies. Rembrandt marks a shift toward better information sharing and greater emphasis on finding practical treatments for individuals fighting this disease. The concrete benefits of Rembrandt include enabling physicians to identify individualized and tailored therapies to treat brain tumor patients. One of the major challenges of this project is that it requires researchers and clinicians to work together along with software engineers to manage the input from patients and bring all of their contributions together. With significant experience in biology research, bioinformatics and software development, Dr. Madhavan was the perfect person to bridge the differences between the various parties. She was hired by NIH specifically to lead this project, and she built the architecture of Rembrandt from the ground up. In the end, she had to draw on all of her scientific, diplomatic and technical skills to get the job done. Through the Rembrandt project, Dr. Madhavan and her team are bringing together the disparate communities in biomedicine so that the whole can be more than the sum of the parts in the fight against cancer.