Detecting cancer biomarkers in real time focus of software team

Three students in front of poster board
WSU Tri-Cities students discuss cancer detection software at poster presentation

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Identifying cancer and other health biomarkers in real-time is the aim of a software development project now being pursued by computer science students at Washington State University Tri-Cities in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is currently researching how to use mass spectrometry — a technology that allows scientists to identify individual molecules and components in materials such as blood, tissue samples and more — to identify health biomarkers that are indicative of disease and infection in real time. But with this process, thousands upon thousands of individual components and data points have to be processed.

The software, created by WSU Tri-Cities students and PNNL, will allow scientists and medical professionals to instantaneously filter the data points pertaining to those biomarkers and potentially result in a quicker medical diagnosis.

“It can tell you those biomarkers then and there, instead of you having to send your blood sample off to a lab and having to wait an uncertain amount of time to get it back,” computer science student Ryan Joyce said.

The technology would be implemented within PNNL’s existing technological framework for specifically what is called Structures for Lossless Ion Manipulation, which is used to improve ion mobility spectrometry technology. The ion mobility spectrometry technology is used for separating and characterizing ions and is widely used in chemical analysis.

Four research team members in front of poster board.
WSU Tri-Cities/PNNL research team, including (l-r) Wes Fletcher, Ryan Joyce, Spencer Prost, and KJ Dorow. Poster is the PNNL project mentor. 

The student team, all from WSU Tri-Cities’ School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, consists of Joyce, KJ Dorow and Wes Fletcher. Together they worked with their project mentor and PNNL software engineer, Spencer Prost, to develop the software as part of their senior capstone course at WSU Tri-Cities.

Prost said working with a student team to improve processes within their existing technological framework presents an ideal partnership, as it allows a different set of minds to work on a real-world problem that has large impacts.

“The students are not only building a platform that can be expanded upon further by students, but also by PNNL staff,” Prost said. “These types of cooperations are very important to PNNL as we need experienced minds, but we also need the young blood to drive those innovations. It takes the minds of both.”

The students said while the project certainly presented a large challenge, they enjoyed working through the issues of the software to come up with a viable solution that can be implemented in a real-world technology.

“It’s simple in nature, but also really complicated,” Fletcher said of their software. “Handling the flow of information at the rate at which is has to process that information is difficult. But it’s been a great project. It’s cool to know that this could help with cancer diagnoses.”



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