Among the dozens of white papers published in the American Association for Cancer Research’s journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics during 2013, there wasn’t one cited more often than the study of metastatic breast cancer patients by researchers at Baylor University Medical Center, Arizona’s Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), and US Oncology.
Get used to it: Baylor and TGen have announced they’re forming a large-scale research consortium, beginning with efforts to further personalize oncology—diagnose tumors sooner, then develop individualized treatment paths to increase the patient’s chance of survival. Researchers for each institution have worked together on studies in the past, like the one in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics—and this is an effort to formally broaden the research, organizers say.
“As we started looking into our strengths in immunology and metabolomics (editor’s note:t his is the study of small molecule metabolites and how they affect cell development) and their strengths in genomics, we thought it would be a really great fit to develop a larger collaboration instead of these one-off projects,” said Jamie Walkowiak, the Baylor Research Institute’s vice president of clinical research operations.
TGen is a Phoenix based non-profit that started in 2002 and has grown into one of the nation’s premiere research institutions. It develops transitional research projects and conducts clinical trials, particularly those on treatments and therapies to fight cancer, diabetes, and rare childhood disorders.
To see the potential of the new alliance, venture back to that highly cited study. In it, the researchers used TGen’s landmark genomic sequencing technology to study 14 metastatic triple-negative breast cancer patients. Using computing software developed in conjunction with Dell, the researchers analyzed billions of pieces of genetic information in each patient’s DNA. After that, they were able to identify personalized therapies including therapeutic drug targets for the highly complex tumors.
Pairing with Baylor Scott & White Health means that the researchers will have access to the clinical pool of patients who seek care at the system’s 49 hospitals. Researchers hope to produce more studies like the one in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.
“That’s one of the most important parts,” says Dr. John D. Carpten, deputy director of basic science at TGen. “Dallas-Fort Worth and Central Texas is a very diverse population.”
A primary goal of the consortium is to further precision medicine therapies, said Dr. Ajay Goel, an investigator and the director for the Center of Epigenetics, Cancer Prevention and Cancer Genomics at the Baylor Research Institute and Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center. Precision medicine is receiving its moment in the sun—President Barack Obama in February set aside $215 million for a nationwide initiative through the National Institutes of Health to help fund research to further it.
In an interview published in the New England Journal of Medicine, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins noted that each tumor has its own genomic signatures, meaning the ideal treatment for each patient is unique. What may work for one person won’t for another, and that’s been shown in myriad studies in recent years. Precision medicine combines analysis, data, and individual research to determine the best therapy.
“Once we have a complete understanding of what the tumor looks like we can use a combination of treatments and use different strategies for the drugs,” Goel says. “These patients are going to respond so much better, and we’ll have much better luck treating and managing them.”
Goel says research will also go toward diagnosing the cancer sooner. It’s now understood that tumors leak DNA into the bloodstream, which can be detected in blood tests. As an example, say a patient reaches a certain age where they become more susceptible to developing cancer. The primary care doctor could make the blood test part of their annual physical, and if it picks up any abnormalities, he or she can be sent to a specialist sooner than before.
“As technology gets better and better and more and more sensitive, maybe we can go down to finger pricks,” says TGen’s Carpten. “We can measure the amount and type of DNA from the plasma in the blood and really understand whether cancer is present in that patient.”
In the fall, Carpten says researchers from Baylor and TGen will gather for an informal retreat to get to know one another and discuss their work. Then, it’s on. Baylor has set aside an undisclosed amount of money to help fund the venture, the majority of which has come from philanthropy, Walkowiak said. Eventually, the project will broaden to include research into other areas, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, and rare childhood disorders. But the first focus is on genetics and oncology, and filling in gaps in research.
“We all have unique core capabilities that all can be brought to bear on important clinical questions,” Carptens says. “We hope to build a preeminent cancer and biomedical research platform through this partnership, and we see that as a strong possibility.”