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Pitt Cancer Institute Awarded Major Federal Grants for Early Cancer Detection

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Cynthia Patton

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The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with UPMC CancerCenter, will receive or is sharing in $15.5 million over five years from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to accelerate research into the early detection of cancer.

The NCI Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) projects seek to discover, develop and validate tests that use blood or other bodily fluids to detect cancer biomarkers—the biological signatures left by cancerous cells—in order to detect cancer at an earlier stage or to better monitor cancer progression. The projects typically involve dozens of scientists at multiple institutions.

“Too often, people with advanced cancer have no symptoms, and their cancer isn’t found until it is too late for even the best doctors to save them,” said Nancy E. Davidson, M.D., director of UPCI. “But imagine if a simple blood test could accurately detect cancer before the patient even knows something is wrong. That is the ultimate goal of these projects, and our UPCI scientists are dedicated to a team approach toward making such easy early detection a reality.”

Randall Brand, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Gastrointestinal Malignancy Early Detection, Diagnosis & Prevention Program with UPCI, is principal investigator with Surinder K. Batra, Ph.D., from the University of Nebraska, on the first ever EDRN Clinical Validation Center for pancreatic cancer. These centers manage large repositories of blood and tissue samples against which promising biomarkers can be tested. This is the last phase of the NCI-funded early detection process. Once a promising biomarker is validated, typically it will be further developed for clinical use by a biotech or pharmaceutical company.

Dr. Brand also is a co-investigator on an EDRN grant for a Biomarker Development Laboratory headed by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center that is geared toward discovering biomarkers for pancreatic cancer. 

“Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers because it is rarely found early,” said Dr. Brand. “That is why teamwork is so essential to saving lives. Here in Pittsburgh, we have a well-established infrastructure to facilitate the sharing of information; we have a regional cancer center, and our surgeons, oncologists, pathologists and scientists all work together. Our infrastructure will make it possible to hit the ground running in coordinating with other institutions toward the goal of an accurate, effective test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.”

Robert Schoen, M.D., M.P.H., professor of medicine and epidemiology and interim chief of the Division of Gastroenterology at Pitt, is principal investigator with Kenneth Kinzler, Ph.D., and Bert Vogelstein, M.D., both of Johns Hopkins University, on another EDRN Biomarker Development Laboratory, this one focused on colon cancer.

Dr. Schoen’s group plans to evaluate a screening test in blood that will compare people with colon cancer to those without it to see if their biomarker test can accurately detect subjects with colon cancer. They also will evaluate a blood monitoring test for people with newly diagnosed stage III colorectal cancer to see if their monitoring test is better than the standard monitoring test at detecting subjects with recurrent disease.

“Of course, a blood test to screen for cancer is highly desirable compared to colonoscopy or stool-based tests that currently are in use,” said Dr. Schoen. “A test that can tell you things after you’ve been diagnosed also would be valuable. For example, you could determine if the cancer treatment is working or if it needs to be changed, and you could potentially identify patients with recurrence earlier.”

Finally, Anna Lokshin, Ph.D., professor of medicine and pathology with UPCI, is a principal investigator on a subcontract of the EDRN Clinical Validation Center led by Christopher Li, M.D., Ph.D., of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. That project is split into three parts that involve evaluation of potential biomarkers for breast, colorectal and ovarian cancers.

“We believe we’ve selected some very strong biomarker test candidates for validation and that these tests will not only help detect cancer earlier, but also lessen the difficulty some patients find with preventative screenings, such as mammography and colonoscopy,” said Dr. Lokshin. “We anticipate that the work we do with this project will yield a clinical impact relatively soon.”

The NCI grants for these projects are U01CA200-466-01, U01CA152653-06, U01CA152753 and U01CA152637-06.