The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Breast Cancer

October 1, 2012

Tissue bank, genome work put WRI on cutting edge

WINDBER — Windber Research Institute’s reputation as a world class breast cancer program and tissue banking facility has paved the way for expansions into new areas of study.

Since its inception in 2000, the heart of Windber’s program has been the breast cancer blood and tissue specimens in its ever-growing lineup of high-tech freezers.

For much of its early existence, Windber’s research was confined to the Clinical Breast Care Project with Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Now Windber will be the tissue bank for all of the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s cancer research, Stella Somiari, tissue bank director, said at Windber.

“In our work with Walter Reed, we’ve gone beyond the Clinical Breast Care Project,” Somiari said. “They are inviting us to be the storage center for all specimens that come from Walter Reed and its other facilities. We are expanding the tissue bank.”

The new Walter Reed’s cancer center was not designed with a tissue bank. When U.S. Military Cancer Institute Director Col. Craig Shriver began talking with other leaders about possible locations, it didn’t take long for Windber’s name to come up. Shriver has been in charge of the Clinical Breast Care Project for most of its existence and is familiar with the quality Windber delivers, Somiari said.

“It is fast-tracked,” Somiari said. “They have come to the understanding that there is no sense reinventing the wheel.”

By selecting Windber, the federal government will save the cost of building and setting up a new center, which would be modeled after Windber’s renown program anyway, Chief Executive Officer Tom Kurtz said

Windber’s reputation has reached beyond the military with Windber’s participation in the Cancer Genome Atlas project, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute, both part of the National Institutes of Health.

It involves hundreds of scientists around the world working to map the DNA sequences for different types of cancers. The study requires the highest quality of frozen tissue samples, along with blood samples and, at least, a basic health history of each patient, Windber’s Chief Scientific Officer Richard Mural said.

All that information has been a standard at Windber, but other breast cancer tissue banks were not always so diligent, Mural said. Working with hundreds of larger programs and dozens of tissue banks, Windber’s contributions have accounted for more than 10 percent of all those studied to date.

“We are very proud of the fact that so many of the samples came from us,” Mural said.

The study is envisioned to identify differences between cancer cells and normal cells at the molecular level, and design medicines to target those characteristics without damaging normal cells, Mural said.

“Cancer is a disease driven by genetic changes,” Mural said. “It is going to be a really major change in the way we think about diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.”

Tailoring the medicine for a specific individual’s tumor DNA is not as far-fetched as it once was, Johnstown medical oncologist Dr. Paul Woolley said.

He compares the science to research that led to antibiotics in the middle of the 20th century.

“Bacteria cells are different in many ways from human cells,” Woolley said. “Because they are different in select ways, drugs that will kill a bacteria cell can be targeted to the bacteria and not kill human cells.

“I always thought, and I still do, there would be a time when we would understand the difference between a cancer cell and a normal human cell. We are getting more and more close to that point. It has become a new game.”

Cost is also a factor in pushing personalized medicine and DNA mapping. Although the tests are still expensive, they are no longer out of reach. In fact, successfully targeting a specific breast cancer tumor could save money if it effectively cures the cancer, Kurtz said.

“The first human genome project took 15 years and cost several billion dollars,” Kurtz said. “Now you can do an individual’s genome in a few days for a few thousand dollars.”

“That’s one of the reasons people are looking at this. For the cost of some of the standard diagnostic tests, you can actually generate this information that leads to something specific for that tumor.”

The first Cancer Genome Atlas report will soon be published in the scientific journal Nature. Hai Hu, Windber’s senior director of biomedical informatics, helped author a supplementary paper to the journal article, outlining some of the clinical data.

Hu also worked with a group to help define standards for human tissue banking.

“When they asked questions about quality assurance, people in the group typically cannot answer the questions well,” Hu said. “We took the lead to increase the quality of the data.”

The key is to connect the tissue and blood samples with the patient’s medical history and demographic information, Mural said.

Its leadership role in the genome project has opened doors for the Walter Reed expansion and additional research in partnership with other large organizations, Kurtz said.

“The quality of our tissue bank was really established by the cancer genome project,” he said.

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