VARI-TGen alliance yields cancer find

June 18, 2010
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One of the first fruits of the alliance between Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids and its Arizona partner, the Translational Genomics Research Institute, appeared with last week’s publication of a scientific paper in a cancer journal.

Together with the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center at Scottsdale Healthcare, the research organizations reported they have discovered a biomarker that could help in treatment of patients with an aggressive form of lung cancer. The paper was published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, the institutes stated in a press release.

“This is the first fruit of what is going to be a significant number of activities that are going to come out of this joint program,” said Dr. Jeffrey Trent, president and research director at VARI and TGen.

Trent also pointed to the Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium, which is mustering the research know-how of VARI and TGen in cooperation with veterinarians and clinicians to investigate cancer in dogs in the belief that the work will shed light on the causes of similar cancers in humans.

He said several events have been conducted to bring together researchers from Phoenix and Grand Rapids, including one that took dozens of scientists to Boyne Mountain just a few weeks ago. Last week, a TGen scientist presented his latest work on Alzheimer’s disease to colleagues in Grand Rapids.

“It’s literally been just a few months that we finalized this,” Trent said. “VARI and TGen really have begun to march together towards the focus we have for bringing new treatments, new tests, and having this whole area of translational research, the movement of discoveries out of the labs, potentially to benefit patients today.”

He said the organizations conducted a call for staff research proposals that were required to involve one of the nearly 200 scientists at VARI and one of the 170 scientists at TGen. Fifty projects were proposed, he said, and 30 were chosen for further development. That research covers diseases such as cancers, including lung, prostate, breast, pancreatic, renal, colorectal, pediatric sarcoma, uterine, brain and lymphoma, as well as sporadic ALS, Alzheimer’s, bone development and even the virus that causes cold sores.

“Every single one of these has a TGen investigator and a Van Andel investigator paired together,” Trent said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg of studies across diseases that I think you are going to start to see that are going to begin to show the fruit of alignment of these two programs.”

For the lung cancer paper, senior author Dr. Glen J. Weiss, director of thoracic oncology at TGen Clinical Research Services at Scottsdale Healthcare, worked with VARI Senior Scientific Investigator Craig Webb and David Cherga, bioinformatics scientist at VARI. Weiss said the team exchanged electronic files so that reams of data on the genomics of small cell lung cancer tumors could be analyzed in Grand Rapids. Trent noted that TGen has the capability to do a great amount of genetic analysis quickly — “high through-put.”

“VARI provided bioinformatics support assembling all the different types of data into a cohesive data set for analysis to help identify the miRNA that play a role in the survival of lung cancer patients,” Cherga said in a press release.

Nearly 220,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer annually, and 33,000 of those are found to have small-cell lung cancer, often diagnosed only in its later stages. Ten to 15 percent of small-cell lung cancer patients respond poorly to the chemotherapy drug combination that has been the standard treatment for about 20 years, Weiss said. The research was aimed at finding a way to identify those poor responders.

The research identified three single-stranded RNA molecules, including one that regulates how genes and proteins control cellular development and is “significantly” linked to survival. The researchers studied 34 tumor samples from patients with a median age of 69. Tumors with high levels of this particular microRNA are resistant to chemotherapy.

“On the research side at TGen, we explore new therapies for lung cancer, focusing on predictive or diagnostic biomarkers,” explained Weiss, who sees patients in addition to his work in drug development.

The discovery could be used to help develop new treatments for these therapy-resistant tumors and to identify patients with these types of tumors and design clinical trials tailored to their prognosis.

The study was funded by the American Cancer Society, a Sylvia Chase Pilot Grant and the IBIS Foundation of Arizona.

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