Teamwork Produces New Test
GRAND RAPIDS — Through a collaboration with the West Michigan Center for Family Health, the Van Andel Research Institute has come up with a simple blood test that can predict how well a cancer patient is going to tolerate radiation therapy.
In medical centers around the world, about 5 percent of people who receive radiation therapy will experience severe side effects from the therapy, said Rick Hay, Ph.D., M.D., deputy director for clinical programs and senior scientific investigator at the Van Andel Research Institute. Hay and Diane Zandstra, business development director for the Center for Family Health, discussed the research project at an Interchange luncheon at the Grand Rapids Press Club Jan 9.
The side effects of radiation therapy can be so severe that they require lifelong medical treatment in addition to treatment for cancer. They can be debilitating, long lasting and quite expensive for people to deal with, Hay said. That 5 percent of the population may be better served by either having no radiation therapy at all or by having a different course of radiation therapy, such as smaller doses over a longer period of time, he explained.
“The problem is we don’t know who that 5 percent are going to be until after they have been treated and actually develop those side effects. For every 100 patients we try to treat with skill, there are at least five that, statistically, we risk harming.
Nigel Crompton, a professor of biology at Cornerstone University, actually devised the test while he was a radiation oncology scientist in Switzerland. He brought the test to VARI’s attention and persuaded the institute to put some resources into developing it, Hay said.
The test requires about a teaspoon of blood taken from the patient prior to starting radiation therapy. The blood sample is given a test dose of radiation. The faster the blood cells die, the more likely that patient is to be able to tolerate radiation therapy without severe side effects. “We knew the blood test was going to work based on Nigel Crompton’s previous studies and based on our own findings here, but we didn’t know why. We struggled for about three years to find a place to help us find out why it worked.”
VARI is not a health care center, so it’s not set up to collect human samples, Hay explained. Furthermore, it’s difficult to find people who are able to do that for research purposes.
“If you want to do something for research purposes, it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare,” Hay noted.
The West Michigan Center for Family Health stepped up and solved VARI’s blood sample recruitment problem by agreeing to do all the blood sample collecting at its offices. So far about 200 patients have been studied, and VARI scientists have now analyzed enough normal patient blood samples to identify those people who fall at the low, mid- and high end of how fast blood cells die when they’re radiated.
“Now, because we know who these patients are, we can go back and study those individuals to find out what genes and other factors floating around in their blood stream might contribute to this,” Hay observed.
“This volume of research is just as high as anything that’s achievable at a major medical center in Ann Arbor, Chicago, Detroit or on the East Coast,” Hay said. “The second point is that this project shows what can be accomplished at the community level in West Michigan if people put their minds to it and work together.”
Zandstra said the Center for Family Health is willing to help the medical community in any way it can toward similar collaborations.
“If there’s a way we can help the overall medical picture in the community, we’re glad to do it and glad to help in that research game,” Zandstra said.