When a combination is equal to more than the sum of its parts, that’s known as synergy. The renowned clinical research and treatment capabilities of UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the genomics expertise and state-of-the-art infrastructure of Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology are a pairing of talent so natural it would do Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers proud.
Together, they are targeting cancer cells at the heart of the DNA anomaly where it goes awry to find better ways to diagnose malignancies and personalize more effective treatment.
“Since mapping the entire human genome, advances in the speed of high throughput sequencing and reductions in cost have given us the capacity to identify genetic abnormalities in a given cancer,” Edward Partridge, MD, Director of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, said. “We’ve been collaborating with HudsonAlpha on the genomics of cancer for several years. The consortium formalizes the relationship under a core grant from the NIH, and gives us a structure to work together more productively.”
To enhance the benefits of close cooperation between the clinical side and the technical side of research, the NIH has been encouraging the development of cancer research consortiums. The relationship between the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Huntsville-based HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology will be similar to that of the University of Washington Medical Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Seattle Cancer Care Alliance; the Cleveland Clinic and the Lerner Research Institute’s Genomic Medicine Institute; and Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital.
HudsonAlpha president and science director Richard M. Myers, PhD, said “Bringing genomics to the forefront in cancer health care is one of HudsonAlpha’s biggest projects. We have research in breast, ovarian, and kidney and prostate cancer, to name a few, and for us, a partnership with one of the most respected NCI comprehensive cancer centers will help us fulfill our mission.”
Strangely enough, cancer, which is essentially a disease of genetic disruption, is inherited in only 10 percent of cases.
“Around 90 percent of cancers develop from genetic damage that is acquired,” Partridge said. “The most common causes of the damage are tobacco, excessive sun, environmental exposures and the constant irritation of inflammation that develops from modern lifestyle changes in diet, inactivity and the metabolic effects that come from obesity. “
Beyond the genetic disruptions causing cancer, a better understanding of the patient’s individual genetics can play a big part in developing a more accurate prognosis and choosing the most effective treatment.
“The genomic testing of patients in previous trials found a significant difference in those who responded to specific treatments and those who didn’t,” Partridge said. “If we can predict up front whether patients are likely to be responders, we can start the best treatment faster. If they are not likely to respond to a drug, we can immediately move to a treatment that is more likely to be effective. This saves critical time and is less taxing on the patient’s body.
“There is still a lot to learn. HudsonAlpha’s sequencing capabilities and expertise in evaluating which genetic abnormalities are likely to be relevant and have an impact on the cancer are tremendously helpful,” Partridge said. “Our researchers have recently identified several new proteins that suggest targets for new drugs to treat brain tumors and other cancers. But there are some malignancies like triple negative breast cancer where we have very little to go on in finding vulnerabilities we might be able to target. The better we understand the genetics and epigenetics of other genes that affect the development and progression of the disease, the more likely we will find a pathway where we can fight back.”
A consortium doing such cutting edge work in the genomics of cancer is likely to make Alabama an attractive location for top talent in the field. Multiple hires of new faculty investigators are anticipated when final details in launching the consortium are approved, which is expected in May of next year.
The only comprehensive cancer center in the six-state Deep South region, UAB’s CCC was awarded this designation in 1973 by the National Cancer Institute, based on the center’s depth and breadth in laboratory, clinical and population-based research as well as transdisciplinary research that bridges these areas. It is home to more than 350 physician scientists and researchers, and more than 180 cancer-related clinical trials.
HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is a nonprofit research institute dedicated to realizing the promise of genomics in medical, agricultural, educational and commercial practice. Since opening its doors in Huntsville in 2008, the institute has expended more than $30 million on cancer-related research and generated more than a half-dozen discoveries related to genomic techniques and biomarkers.
“Our philosophy is that we’re better together,” Myers said. “Genomics is a highly dynamic field with a great deal of potential. Its application also requires a great deal of experience to interpret the vast quantities of data generated by sequencing DNA and performing other experiments on the human genome. This is where HudsonAlpha excels, and we need partners who are experts at clinical diagnosis, treatment and care so that we can relate genomic data to patient attributes. Getting the most out of new discoveries so that we impact patient care substantially and quickly is the reason HudsonAlpha was founded.”
Partridge said, “Both of our organizations have a passion for improving the lives of those affected by cancer. The UAB CCC serves about 5,000 new patients and provides oncology to more than 20,000 patients annually, and we are determined to bring state-of-the-art genomics to their care.