With the award of an $845,000 grant in August 2010, Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) takes one step closer to making the ideal of individualized medicine a reality. The grant, a supplement to HCI’s Cancer Center Support Grant from the National Cancer Institute, will fund the development of a new shared resource—the Translational Oncology Shared Resource—within the Huntsman Cancer Hospital expansion. HCI’s shared resources make specialized equipment and methods available to multiple researchers and physicians while preventing duplication of effort and expenditure.
“We developed the Translational Oncology Shared Resource with the idea of supporting early clinical research that will change patient care in a big way in the near future,” says Sunil Sharma, MD, senior director of Clinical Research at HCI and co-leader of the Imaging, Diagnostics, and Therapeutics Program.
Sharma worked closely with David Jones, PhD, HCI’s Senior Director of Early Translational Research, in developing the Translational Oncology Shared Resource. Bradley Cairns, PhD, Senior Director of Basic Science, and Wallace Akerley, MD, Senior Director of Community Oncology Research, were also on the development team. In large part, the seed idea was part of Sharma’s strategy working toward integration of clinical care, research, and molecular diagnostics.
Finding out more about a patient’s cancer is an important part of bringing individualized medicine to cancer care. This information comes from analyzing hundreds of possible mutations in the tumor cells, and these results then point to the most effective treatment for that particular patient’s cancer.
“Up until a few years ago, the ability to do that kind of patient-tailored analysis has been limited to research labs,” says Jones. “That’s not compatible with making clinical decisions. Most people can’t wait three weeks for a lab analysis that will be a deciding factor in their treatment. They want and need answers right away.”
“In the past, available technology could look for mutations in a certain gene, and the ‘yes or no’ answer could provide insight into the best course of treatment between one drug and another,” Jones explains. “The new equipment for this shared resource takes the analysis to a new level—searching for mutations in hundreds of genes at the same time. More in-depth knowledge of the combinations of mutations in a tumor will allow more effective choices of drug combinations to treat the cancer.”
Two pieces of equipment are key to the Translational Oncology Shared Resource. A laser capture microdissection microscope will allow pathologists to precisely sort tumor cells from normal cells in patients’ tissues obtained through biopsy or surgery. Even within tumors, normal cells are scattered among the cancer cells. DNA from the pure tumor cells goes to a mass array sequencer, the second key piece of equipment. This machine performs DNA sequencing on dozens of samples at once, checking hundreds of genes for combinations of possible mutations.
Building collaborations with the University of Utah’s Department of Pathology will also play a large part in the growth of this new shared resource. In every hospital, pathologists are the doctors who analyze tissues to determine the nature of each patient’s disease. The advent of the Translational Oncology Shared Resource brings cutting-edge technology that will help strengthen interactions between clinical pathologists and HCI physicians and researchers. The collaboration with the Department of Pathology and its associated reference lab for diagnostic testing, ARUP Laboratories, will provide the certifications necessary for clinical use of the technology.
“Patients can be confident that HCI is leading the way in cancer diagnosis and treatment,” says Sharma.