August 29, 2011

$30 mill creates center for personalized cancer care

A $30 million gift from the Commonwealth Foundation for Cancer Research has enabled the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center to establish a Center for Personalized Cancer Medicine. The gift from the Richmond, Va.–based foundation will be used to support research and the development of new technologies that pinpoint the novel genetic characteristics of each patient’s cancer. Johns Hopkins scientists and officials say that this will speed the development of therapies based on an individual cancer patient’s genetic “fingerprint.”

“Treatment fine-tuned to a patient’s genetic makeup is the future of cancer medicine,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of The Johns Hopkins University. “This gift is welcome recognition that Johns Hopkins is bringing together experts from many disciplines—doctors, scientists and engineers—to make that future happen more quickly. I am deeply grateful to the Commonwealth Foundation for that recognition. Its support is a vitally important investment on behalf of cancer patients.”

With this important information, clinicians will be able to help cancer patients by tailoring drug treatment to their disease, track its progress and avoid unnecessary treatments. Some cancers may be prevented altogether, which would slash costs of new drug discoveries by limiting “hit and miss” approaches, according to William G. Nelson, director of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

“Personalized cancer medicine addresses the reality that no two people are exactly alike, and that no two cancers are exactly alike,” Nelson said. “I believe that the revolution occurring in personalized cancer medicine, driven by genome technologies, will have its greatest effect on the discovery and development of new cancer treatments, a process that right now is far too slow and too expensive for the more than 1.5 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year.”

“This is a watershed moment,” said Edward D. Miller, the Frances Watt Baker, M.D., and Lenox D. Baker Jr., M.D., Dean of the Medical Faculty and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine. “With this gift from the Commonwealth Foundation, we’re poised to change and vastly improve cancer medicine.”

Johns Hopkins scientists have pioneered numerous ways to decipher the genetic landscape of various cancers, uncovering key genetic mutations and pathways in breast, colon, brain and pancreatic cancer.

Some of their discoveries have already altered patient care, Nelson noted. A blood test called PARE (for personalized analysis of rearranged ends), for example, not only detects cancer genes but also can tell if a therapy is working by measuring, in real time, the amount of a particular cancer’s DNA in the bloodstream. The test also can verify a cure or document the need for further treatment, freeing patients who are proved cancer-free from unneeded treatments.

Funds for the new center will initially support over four years three pilot projects focused on changes in cancer-related DNA mutations inside cells, as well as genetic changes outside of cells’ nuclear DNA, known as epigenetic alterations.

Specifically, investigators will examine which genomic and epigenomic factors affect responses to treatment in patients with leukemia and lung cancer, and develop tests for early detection of various kinds of cancers, including breast, colon and lung. Based on genetic and epigenetic “markers,” scientists are already creating individualized immunotherapies—such as cancer vaccines—that use the specific genetic makeup of each patient’s tumor.

The new center, which officially began operations in July, brings together experts from many disciplines at Johns Hopkins, including oncology, biomedical engineering, public health and surgery.

“The convergence of brilliant scientific minds made possible with this gift will bring us to a point where we can alter the course of cancer therapy in ways we could only imagine just a decade ago,” said Nelson, who calls collaboration across specialties “a hallmark of Hopkins science.”

Johns Hopkins faculty have already seen the establishment of an individualized health initiative created with part of a recent gift to the university’s Whiting School of Engineering from alumnus John Malone, a leading businessman in the telecommunications and media industries and chairman of Colorado-based Liberty Media. That gift supports a variety of interdisciplinary research. The new Kimmel-based center, Nelson said, will benefit from this initiative as well.

The Commonwealth Foundation for Cancer Research, under the direction of William and Alice Goodwin, has been a leading supporter of translational research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Before this gift, the foundation had donated approximately $40 million to support research, including an innovative clinical trial using bacteria to treat colon cancer, development of targeted therapies using a vaccine to treat pancreatic and breast cancers, and cancer stem cell research. The foundation also supports research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Virginia Cancer Center and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center.