A study using big data has fast-forwarded progress in breast cancer research "by decades", discovering a cell shape/gene network that sheds new light on the development of the disease, potentially forming the basis for better treatment selection in the future.

Scientists funded by Cancer Research have created a 'map' linking the shape of breast cancer cells to genes switched on and off, and matched it to real disease outcomes, according to a study published in Genome Research.

In a ground-breaking approach, they used large sets of data - from millions of images - to map out a network of links between cell shape and genes, and found that cell shape changes, which can be caused by physical pressures on the tumour, are converted into changes in gene activity, and that these changes are linked with clinical outcomes for patients.

The researchers also identified key areas or 'stations' within the network that acted as hubs for the flow of information, controlling the levels of many other genes.

"Our study reveals an exciting link between the forces that act on cancer cells and the development of the disease," said Dr Chris Bakal, team leader in dynamic cell systems at the Institute of Cancer Research.

"We used 'big data' approaches to carry out a complex analysis that would once have taken decades, in a matter of months. The maps we've created of cell shapes and their effects on gene activity provide important pointers to new forms of cancer treatment, and ways of making existing therapies more effective".

"The insights and approaches used in this research could one day lead to us being able to tell from appearance, how aggressive someone's cancer is and how likely to spread, helping doctors decide the best course of treatment," added Professor Karen Vousden, Cancer Research UK's chief scientist.