Fred Hutchinson launches major research effort in early detection of cancer

Seattle 11 June 2003Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has launched a major new programme to develop tests that could alert doctors to the earliest signs of cancer. Known as the Early Detection Initiative, the effort will benefit from $4.4 million in new funding from the Paul G. Allen Foundation for Medical Research of Seattle, the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles and businessman Donald J. Listwin of Woodside, California.


The Paul G. Allen Foundation for Medical Research is contributing $2 million toward the initiative, the W.M. Keck Foundation is contributing $1,4 million, and Donald Listwin is contributing $1 million. Additionally, the centre will invest another $3,3 million to launch the programme.

The goal of Fred Hutchinson's Early Detection Initiative, headed by its president and director, Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., is the early identification of the onset and risk of a wide range of cancers and other diseases so they can be prevented or treated as soon as possible. "The importance of this work is underscored by the fact that survival rates improve dramatically when cancers are diagnosed early, when the disease is still confined to the organ of origin", Dr. Hartwell stated.

For example, if all colorectal cancer cases were detected when localised, the overall five-year survival rates could improve from 64 percent to 90 percent. Early detection also is key to managing breast, ovarian, prostate and other cancers. The five-year survival rate for breast- and prostate-cancer patients with localised, early stage disease is 85 percent to 95 percent and remains high at 10 years.

The $4,4 million in gifts will enable Fred Hutchinson to develop, test and implement methods for detecting proteins that signify the presence or risk of cancer in human blood samples. Researchers will use techniques made possible by the rapidly advancing field of proteomics, which attempts to catalogue and describe the function of all of the proteins made by a cell or organism. Cancer cells may produce unique proteins, or proteins in different quantities, compared to normal cells.

It is expected that this five-year project will bring together the simultaneous application of biological, epidemiological and bioinformatics tools for early cancer detection. Bioinformatics relies on sophisticated software that enables scientists to analyse the large amounts of data generated from cataloguing and comparing the genes and proteins of different individuals, thus enabling the identification of patterns of proteins that indicate disease in its early stages. Fred Hutchinson is working with several partners with specialised technical and bioinformatics expertise, including Microsoft and the Institute for Systems Biology.

The goal of the Early Detection Initiative is to demonstrate that blood-serum protein profiles can distinguish individuals with early stage cancer from those who are healthy. Fred Hutchinson's researchers already have experience in proteomics technologies and can identify and analyse molecular profiles from healthy individuals and from those with early stage cancer whose health histories and lifestyle factors are known. Additionally, the centre's researchers have access to one of the United States' largest repositories of serum samples from large groups of individuals whose medical history and behaviours already have been documented throughout an extended period of observation.

"Early detection provides one of the most promising opportunities to reduce the incidence of advanced cancer and cancer deaths", Dr. Hartwell stated. "New and emerging data-rich technologies provide an opportunity for a broader understanding of disease susceptibility and early detection. This knowledge has the power to transform medical care from treatment of advanced disease to monitoring and managing early stage illness and susceptibility."

Dr. Hartwell explained that private donors, individuals and foundations play a crucial role in the most creative and innovative cancer research. "While this kind of work holds the greatest hope for major strides in understanding cancer, government support often is not available until we have generated pilot data demonstrating proof of concept", he stated. "That's why we are so excited by these new gifts from private foundations and individuals."

The foundations and Donald Listwin have each previously contributed at least $1 million to Fred Hutchinson. This Cancer Research Center is an independent, non-profit research institution dedicated to the development and advancement of biomedical technology to eliminate cancer and other potentially fatal diseases. Fred Hutchinson receives more funding from the National Institutes of Health than any other independent United States research centre.

Recognised internationally for its pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation, the centre's four scientific divisions collaborate to form a unique environment for conducting basic and applied science. Fred Hutchinson, in collaboration with its clinical partners, the University of Washington Academic Medical Center and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, is the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centre in the Pacific Northwest and is one of 39 nationwide. For more information, you can visit the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre's Web site.

Leslie Versweyveld

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