Abraxis Bioscience awards John Wayne Cancer Institute $1M grant for identifying new cancer biomarkers

A $1 million grant from Abraxis Bioscience, Inc. to a world-famous research laboratory at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center could help save lives of cancer patients by helping doctors more rapidly assess whether a treatment is working or not.

“Cancer biomarker tests will give doctors clearer insights into each patient’s condition and response to therapy, and potentially save lives by ensuring that cancer patients receive the most effective treatment, as quickly as possible.”

The grant, awarded to the Department of Molecular Oncology directed by Dr. Dave S.B. Hoon, will speed the search for genes and proteins that can serve as biomarkers for several common solid tumor cancers. Even when tumors are very small, biomarkers can alert doctors to the fact that a cancer is spreading, or reveal the presence of cancer that can remain after treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy--rather than waiting until residual cells grow into a tumor large enough to be detected by imaging.

Blood biomarkers are now known to be important and essential companion tests in assessing any new or approved therapy. Potentially, new tumor biomarkers could be used to develop efficient new blood tests for monitoring cancer, similar to blood glucose tests used to monitor diabetes, or the high sensitivity C-reactive protein test for heart disease, Dr. Hoon explained. His department is highly regarded internationally for discovering genetic and epigenetic biomarkers for many types of solid tumor cancers.

The Abraxis grant covers several novel approaches for identifying new cancer biomarkers. In the initial phase, investigators will search for protein biomarkers in breast and prostate cancer tissues. “We will use novel approaches including mass spectrometry to identify unique signature biomarker proteins in the tumor, then look for the same protein biomarker in the blood,” Dr. Hoon explained. “Hopefully, this will lead us to specific biomarker-based blood tests that would be ideal for all phases of cancer, including screening, staging, and monitoring the success or failure of a particular treatment strategy.”

Abraxis Bioscience is well-known for its success in developing novel therapeutic agents: its FDA-approved drug Abraxane is used to treat breast cancer and is now being applied to other cancers. The new Abraxis funding will also support the search for new epigenetic biomarkers for pancreatic and liver cancer.

Epigenetics (meaning “above the gene”) is a relatively recent field of biomedicine that focuses on environmental influences and other factors that can alter the way a gene is expressed without changing its underlying DNA sequence. Epigenetic mechanisms are now understood to have key roles in cancer growth and spread, such as by “silencing” tumor suppressor genes or activating genes that promote cancer cell growth. For several years, Dr. Hoon’s lab has been focusing considerable research attention on epigenetic alterations that could serve as prognostic biomarkers for various cancers. Having more accurate prognoses would help doctors choose the best treatment strategy early on.

Liver cancer is an increasing health problem in the U.S. today; rates are climbing due to the rising incidence of hepatitis C, a main cause of primary liver cancer. The liver cancer research at John Wayne Cancer Institute will be performed in collaboration with Steven D. Colquhoun, M.D., F.A.C.S., Surgical Director, Liver Transplantation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

“Better genetic and protein-based cancer blood biomarker tests will help doctors more closely and accurately monitor a cancer patient’s condition and manage it more effectively,” Dr. Hoon explained. “This is critically important in cancer, where we want to identify which patients are responding to therapy and which aren’t, without delay. If a patient needs a different treatment, it makes sense to quickly switch to something with a chance of being more effective, rather than taking a ‘watch and wait’ approach.

“For other problems such as heart disease, we have much better tests,” Dr. Hoon continued. “Look at blood pressure and cholesterol. If test results show that a patient is not responding to medication, we can change that medication immediately, rather than waiting until something bad happens--like a heart attack.

“Cancer diagnosis and therapy today still rely heavily on imaging and observation,” Dr. Hoon concluded. “Cancer biomarker tests will give doctors clearer insights into each patient’s condition and response to therapy, and potentially save lives by ensuring that cancer patients receive the most effective treatment, as quickly as possible.”

SOURCE Saint John’s Health Center

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