Terry Speed: fighting cancer by the numbers

Terry Speed doesn’t expect to see headlines reading “Statistician cures cancer” any time soon. But he knows that maths and stats can help researchers understand the underlying causes of cancer and reduce the need for surgery.

Terry Speed. Credit: WEHI

A mathematician and statistician, he has written elegant theoretical papers that almost no-one reads. But he has also testified in court, helped farmers and diamond miners, and given biologists statistical tools to help them cope with the genetic revolution.

For his contribution to generating knowledge using genomics and related technologies, Terry, head of Bioinformatics at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), was awarded the 2013 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

At the University of California, Berkeley, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Terry came across the new microarray technology that simultaneously assessed the activity levels of thousands of genes. There he developed statistical analysis techniques that are still widely used.

Now at WEHI, Terry applies statistics to the fields of genetics and molecular biology. Cancer is a particular focus. He is developing techniques to sort out the thousands of differences between normal and cancer cells, investigating ideas to treat cancer more efficiently, and working with the small company Veracyte to create a tool to determine whether your thyroid growth is benign.

Photo: Terry Speed
Credit: WEHI