By Anka G. Ehrhardt
Modern gold. The hunger for data in contemporary science (and society) is like a modern gold rush. Data have become a precious commodity, everybody wants as much of it as one can get, and hoarders of either possession are, by definition, rich. Yet, gold—until it was being used for corrosion-free electric connectors—was not really good for any practical application at all; it’s just difficult to get and shiny, establishing it as the status symbol of ages. Similarly, accumulated data are not really good for anything, unless they are read in ways to yield actionable new insights.
“Blood is a very special juice.“—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
The very special juice of life has many components, but let’s focus just on one: white blood cells. These cells are an army of different tiny specialists, uniting to become key players of the immune system, defending our health every day against all sorts of insults, including cancer. And clever scientists have devised ways to do a census of a person’s white cell troops—using only a thimble full of blood. The tool used is called flow cytometry, and the census technique is termed immunophenotyping.
For a long time, we have had a rough understanding of what a normal healthy white blood cell army looks like: how many of which specialists are needed to keep the body healthy and to fight off attacks. And this knowledge is starting to pay off with the new buzz over immuno-oncology, a field that is heralded to create new ”wonder drugs.“ Reports trickle in of bringing some cancer patients back to health from the brink of death, by ”simply” activating their own white blood cells. While this approach has indeed worked miracles for some fortunate cancer patients, sadly this is not (yet) the outcome for all. Finding the magic ingredient that makes the difference between life and death may depend on finding this difference.
Many scientists believe that if only we have enough data on the precise nature of every single white blood cell in enough patients, a life-saving difference can be found. Hence, we sharpen our technology and collect the most—and most precise—data ever accumulated in immunophenotyping. We have entered an entirely new era in the characterization of white blood cells, moving rapidly from kilobytes to gigabytes of data from each sample and expanding from sporadic samples in select sites to international studies of whole populations.
Saving lives with data: How much information is there in a gigabyte of data? One estimate puts it at an astounding minimum of 3,500 documents per gigabyte. If we say a ”document” is small—say, a postcard—then most of what you see and read on it will not be news, but at a minimum you will learn where and when 3,500 people were on their vacations. In a modern complex immunophenotyping experiment, you learn many details for each of hundreds of thousands of cells. You could say we went from glancing over their passports in the past to reading their detailed biographies now. In this large dataset are very likely vital clues to help answer some of the most important questions. For example, which patients will benefit from a new immuno-oncology drug, and what can we add or change to successfully treat the other patients as well?
At the 2016 AAPS National Biotechnology Conference symposium Stemming the Data Surge from New Technologies in Flow Cytometry, top experts in the field will share the current state of their work and help users understand what the available software can do to extract these urgently needed insights from the accumulating immunophenotyping gold. We expect that the importance of the task will bring the presenters and the audience together and start the next chapters in understanding the information in complex flow cytometry data, on its own and in combination with other omics data in the future.