Cancer Research Blog

Bringing You the Latest in the Search For a Cure

Month: April 2015

The Cancer Genome Atlas: Generating a “Parts List” for Cancer

When I was working in a genomics laboratory in the 1990s, I sequenced a section of human chromosome 7. The part I focused on coded for a tumor-suppressor gene. At that time, we had to read the DNA sequence letter by letter in short stretches and then figure out where the genes resided. It was tedious and required extreme care and attention to detail, plus a fair amount of educated guesses.

Today, scientists no longer need to read DNA letter by letter to find the sequence of a gene. Thanks to the Human Genome Project, researchers can quickly and easily access genomic sequence through many data portals, including the well-known UCSC Genome Browser.

India Models New Institute on NCI

Health officials in India recently announced that the country of 1.25 billion is establishing a national cancer institute, which will be modeled after the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI). A delegation of leading health officials from the Government of India visited the U.S. in March to discuss plans for the new establishment in India and to learn more about NCI’s intramural research and clinical care operations.

The visit by the Indian delegation follows on the heels of increased high-level discussions between Indian and U.S. officials on greater collaboration between the two countries. The discussions included a visit to the U.S. last year by Indian Prime Minister Modi to meet with President Obama, and a reciprocal visit by President Obama to India earlier this year.

Global Cancer Humanitarian Award Honors Pat Garcia-Gonzalez of the Max Foundation

At its core, cancer research is about improving and saving lives of those afflicted by cancer. The Max Foundation, led by CEO and co-founder Pat Garcia-Gonzalez, has been widely credited with helping to save the lives of thousands of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) worldwide by helping patients access the cancer drug imatinib. Pat’s work to bring the fruits of cancer research to patients in low- and middle-income countries inspired the creation of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Global Cancer Medicine Humanitarian Award; and she the award’s first honoree.

Pat Garcia-Gonzalez started the Max Foundation as a tribute to her step-son, Max, who was diagnosed with CML in 1988 at the age of 14 and passed away in 1991. Thirteen years following Max’s diagnosis, imatinib was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat CML patients. Pat saw imatinib’s enormous potential to allow many patients to live a normal lifestyle, but recognized that the drug’s high cost meant that many patients in low- and middle-income countries would have no access to this life-saving treatment. Despite tremendous hurdles, Pat and her team at the Max Foundation worked with the pharmaceutical company, Novartis, to establish a mechanism to provide imatinib to patients in low-resource settings. 

Turning Evidence into Practice

Last Wednesday I was able to attend and support the National Cancer Institute’s 3rd Symposium on Global Cancer Research; a satellite meeting to the 6th Annual Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) Conference in Boston. Partnering with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and CUGH, the Symposium featured speakers from various cancer disciplines including Dr. Larry Shulman (Dana-Farber), Dr. Sudha Sivaram (CGH), and Dr. Clement Adebamowo (University of Maryland). The Symposium centered on the theme of implementation science, a field which studies the integration of research findings and evidence into healthcare policy and practice. Attendees from universities, hospitals, government, and research institutions discussed the importance of assessments, site commitment, and data-set availability to prove the safety and effectiveness of cancer care delivery in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

A personal highlight was the interactive sessions; an opportunity for participant groups to tackle hypothetical implementation science situations encountered in LMICs with regard to pathology, cervical cancer, radiation, and pediatric oncology—challenges similar to those we undertake daily at CGH. I was able to brainstorm alongside researchers with backgrounds working in Haiti, Botswana, and Rwanda to identify the barriers to implementation in our assigned country and determine how funds could be effectively used to combat these deficiencies in both the short-term and long-term. One of our recommendations was to establish supply chain interventions, to ensure the availability of pathology materials.  Another encouraged support staff training for slide preparation, allowing the limited number of pathologists in the country free to spend their time diagnosing tissue.

Common Myths about Cancer and Cancer Health Disparities

Some population groups continue to experience cancer health disparities and a diminished quality of life. These groups include the poor, racially and ethnically diverse groups, and those with limited or no access to healthcare. Cancer is a terrifying disease for whomever it touches. Unfortunately, it also generates some myths and false ideas out of fear and having inaccurate information.

To better understand cancer and cancer health disparities, some common misconceptions are addressed below. 

Grantee Spotlight: Jennie Williams, Ph.D. – Investigating Genetic Biomarkers for Colon Cancer in African Americans

At Stony Brook University on Long Island’s North Shore, Jeannie Williams, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medicine in the Department of Preventive Medicine, is determined to learn what role molecular genetics plays in the initiation of colon cancer in African-Americans and cancer health disparities.

Dr. Williams is currently investigating, through an NCI-supported R01 grant, “epigenetic markers to pinpoint which African Americans will develop colon cancer and whether those patients will respond to conventional chemotherapy treatments that inhibit colon tumors.”

The RAS Problem: Turning Off a Broken Switch

Every year, more than one million people worldwide die from cancers driven by mutations in a gene called RAS. Despite the success in developing cancer therapies that target many genetic abnormalities that drive cancer, researchers have been unable to develop treatments that can directly target altered RAS proteins, and many have written off RAS as being “undruggable.”

Now, with new techniques in structural biology, biochemistry, imaging, and genomics—as well as focused funding support from NCI through the RAS Initiative—researchers are taking a new crack at this old problem.

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