Collaboration is Key to Translating the Next Generation of Cancer Research

Guest Post by Dario C. Altieri, MD
The Wistar Institute

A buzzword in the biomedical research industry for many years, translational research aims to do just that: “translate” or advance research discoveries made in the lab into early phase clinical trials with actual patients and their cells. Partnerships allow scientists to forge new paths in translational medicine, where individual laboratories or entire research programs join forces to advance discoveries. This era of personalized medicine allows scientists and clinicians to deliver the right drug to the right patient at the right time.

Dr. Louise C. Showe, professor at The Wistar Institute and AACR member, in her lab. Photo courtesy of The Wistar Institute.
Dr. Louise C. Showe, professor at The Wistar Institute and AACR member, in her lab. Photo courtesy of The Wistar Institute.

The same cutting-edge research that guides innovative cancer clinical trials at top teaching medical centers is now available in some smaller community hospitals, no matter the type or stage of the disease. Through our partnership, which originated in 2011, The Wistar Institute and Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute are bringing cutting-edge research to the community – the first and only inter-institutional collaboration between a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated basic research cancer center and a community hospital system.

As a sign of success in translational research, Wistar Institute professor Louise C. Showe, PhD, is developing a 29-gene panel blood test that could be used to predict non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). While lung cancer has long been plagued by early-stage screening difficulties, Showe has worked with thoracic surgeons at the Helen F. Graham Center to develop the test and access the patient blood samples necessary to validate the research.

In 2009, Showe and her colleagues first demonstrated the correlation between the presence of NSCLC and gene expression patterns – changes in gene activity – within peripheral mononuclear blood cells, white blood cells like leukocytes and lymphocytes important for an immune response. In 2011, her team further showed that such gene expression patterns change after tumor removal and in many cases could return to normal in patients following successful surgery. They also found a panel of genes that could distinguish between malignant tumors and non-malignant lung nodules, suggesting that a blood test could also guide treatment decisions and help prevent unnecessary surgeries. To validate the test, Showe partnered with community hospitals to collect samples from more than 600 patients considered at high risk for developing lung cancer. All samples were collected in late 2014; data are currently being validated.

While most cancer research is performed in academic medical centers, about 80 percent of oncology care across the United States is provided at community hospitals, closer to home for patients and their families. The symbiotic Wistar-Helen F. Graham partnership is key because it gives Wistar scientists access to an early-stage patient population in which tumors have not had a chance to evolve, resist cell death, or select other mechanisms to avoid resistance, which is important for developing advances like the lung cancer blood test. Together, these institutions are forging a new path in translational medicine that accelerates discoveries from the lab to clinical trials by directly connecting the dots between patients in the community and the medical, research, and pharmaceutical industries.

The path is clear: Strategic partnerships and pooled resources have great potential to bring rise to the new research and innovative therapies that can truly transform the future of cancer treatment and improve patient outcomes.

Dr. Dario C. Altieri. Photo courtesy of The Wistar Institute.
Dr. Dario C. Altieri. Photo courtesy of The Wistar Institute.

On March 2, 2015, Dario C. Altieri, MD, became The Wistar Institute’s new CEO. He continues to serve as director of Wistar’s Cancer Center, as chief scientific officer, and as the Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. Altieri is a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and a senior editor of the AACR’s journal Molecular Cancer Research.

Known worldwide for vaccine development, Wistar, located in Philadelphia, also has a long history as a prominent cancer research center, which has been NCI-designated since 1972. Of the 68 NCI-designated cancer centers in the United States, Wistar is one of only seven focused solely on basic cancer biology and among less than 10 percent to receive an “exceptional” rating at its most recent evaluation from a national panel of cancer experts – the highest possible score a cancer center can receive. Similarly, the Helen F. Graham Center in Newark, Delaware was one of the first NCI-selected community cancer centers.

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