AI research discovers link between smell genes and colon cancer

Research from Dr Heba Sailem, recently published in Molecular Systems Biology, showed that patients with specific smell-sensing genes ‘turned on’ are more likely to have worse colon cancer outcomes.

Through the development of a machine-learning approach to analyse the perturbation of over 18,000 genes, Dr Sailem and her team found that olfactory receptor gene expression may have some effect on the way that colon cancer cells are structured.

Dr Sailem used layers of Artificial Intelligence (AI), including computer algorithms, to detect the changes of cancer cell appearance and organisation when the genes are turned down using siRNA technology. AI played a crucial part of this research, as it allowed for speed and efficient analysis and mapping of cell image data to various gene functions that were studied, which greatly increase the amount of information that can be extracted and reduced human error.

Dr Sailem surveyed over 18,000 genes and found that specific smell-sensing genes called olfactory receptor genes are strongly associated with how colon cancer cells spread and align with each other akin to the changes induced by turning down key colon cancer genes.

The practical patient implications of this research include how we might approach patients with colon cancer, depending on their genetic makeup. In the long run, Dr Sailem hopes that these findings will allow clinicians to survey patient genes, create specific predictions based on their genetics and create tailored treatments to best treat their cancer.

There is already a large body of research into the genes that influence the structure of cancer tissues, but studies such as this might help to find new target genes. For example, by reducing the expression of olfactory genes, we could potentially inhibit cancer cells from spreading and eventually invading other tissues which is the major cause of cancer death

About the Author

Dr Heba Sailem is a Sir Henry Wellcome Research Fellow at the Big Data Institute and Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford. Her research is focused on developing intelligent systems that help further biological discoveries in the field of cancer.

This paper is a result of three years of work, focusing on identifying the role of genetic expression on the spread and management of colon cancer.

Future research

Following this research Dr Sailem hopes to apply this AI approach to a wider range of cancer, to see what genes are associated with and influence cancer tissue structure, proliferation and motility.

For more information about this research, see Dr Heba Sailem’s paper here.