Being Well

The Cure for Cancer: How Cancer Centers and Their Patients Accelerate the Search

A network of cancer centers expands samples available for research, with the hope of accelerating the search for a cure. As a cancer patient, you can get involved in the research.
A network of cancer centers expands samples available for research, with the hope of accelerating the search for a cure. As a cancer patient, you can get involved in the research.

The latest effort in finding a cure for cancer involves cancer centers letting their patients form a community of volunteers to help speed up research and clinical trials. The need for this partnership is underscored by what physicians and researchers now understand about cancer — that it is a more diverse group of diseases than once thought. For instance, breast cancers don’t all respond to the same treatment, partly because different genetic mutations are found in different cancers. However, not all molecular changes in cancer are well understood.

“We still need to understand key molecular attributes of cancer that predict a response to certain therapies,” says Dr. Christopher Moskaluk, a physician and researcher at UVA Cancer Center. “Certain drugs only work on cancers with specific genetic mutations, which is why much of cancer research today is narrowed to create targeted therapies.”

Developing a Research Network

Clinical trials of targeted therapies may take many months, if not years, to recruit enough participants with the necessary molecular profile. It’s even harder when the researchers are pulling primarily from one geographic area.

The Oncology Research Information Exchange Network (ORIEN) is a program where people with cancer across the country are invited to share information and biosamples to enhance the research process. UVA is one of 11 cancer centers participating so far. The cancer centers obtain permission from patients to join ORIEN and to donate blood and tissue samples, along with treatment and other clinical data.

By creating a large pool of research subjects, ORIEN can ease the clinical trial enrollment process by allowing the investigators to come to one place to enroll participants, rather than going to multiple institutions. Also, for cancer researchers whose projects have been approved by ORIEN members, they now have a much larger set of samples to use than they could obtain from any one institution.

The network has only been around for 2 years, but Dr. Moskaluk and others have high hopes for its potential. The group is currently working on widespread genomic sequencing of tumors. For participants who have appropriate tumor samples, a comprehensive molecular analysis will be performed free for research purposes. This analysis looks for what mutations are causing cancer.

“In our bodies, some genes are shut off and some turned on,” he says. “In cancer, genes are inappropriately turned on or off, which drives the growth of the disease. Molecular testing and gene expression profiling using these pooled samples can help us understand these changes.”

How Patients Contribute

Individuals at participating centers voluntarily donate all samples and health information used in the network. People with cancer or who are suspected of developing cancer can participate in the Partners in Discovery program at UVA. This program is the pipeline through which UVA participates in ORIEN.

If you choose to participate, you’ll have regular blood work done, which is stored at UVA. If you undergo surgery or a biopsy, a small tissue sample will also be saved in the UVA repository. You also consent to allow UVA to share details of your disease and treatment, along with basic demographic information such as age, gender and race. UVA is committed to protecting the privacy of all patients, and your information is coded so your data is anonymous in the system.

“By simplifying the research process and expanding access to samples for testing or clinical trial participants, we hope to accelerate a cure for cancer,” Dr. Moskaluk says. Advancements in treatment aren’t as far off as you may think, especially when the entire cancer community bands together.

If you're a cancer patient and are looking to get involved in the Partners in Discovery program and the cure for cancer in general, learn more about it here.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney