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AACR: Challenges of Cancer Research


Cancer Minute is at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting this week, navigating the plenary sessions, symposia, and exhibitor presentations to find out about the latest goings on in the cancer research field. More than 16,000 attendees have taken over Orlando to hear the speakers, see the posters, and do some networking. At the opening plenary session, the participants highlighted the challenges and opportunities facing cancer research in the years to come. NCI's Harold Varmus spoke about his center's efforts to support cancer researchers in their work. The latest Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer shows cancer mortality rates in the US are dropping by about 1 percent per year. For the first time, mortality rates for lung cancer in women are falling, 10 years after the rate started dropping for men, Varmus said. However, there's still work to do. Although mortality rates are falling for many cancers, incidences of pediatric cancer, kidney cancer, and melanoma — among others — have risen. Both incidences of and mortality rates for pancreatic cancer are also up. Among the challenges NCI is facing is its budget, Varmus added. A recent resolution that passed in the US House of Representatives proposed a $1.6 billion cut in NIH's budget, one-fifth of which goes to NCI. Varmus said the institute plans to award as many grants as possible and to "think creatively" in order to do as much as possible with the money it has. NCI is also planning to create a Center for Cancer Genomics to oversee the efforts being made in that field, a Center for Global Health to address concerns of cancer rates and mortality in developing countries, and has a new initiative called Provocative Questions in which researchers and cancer research stakeholders are being encouraged to ask the questions that will advance the field.

Also at the opening session, Dana Farber's Lynda Chin spoke about translating cancer genomics. Cancer is primarily a disease of the genome, she said, and understanding the genomics of the disease is key to prevention, detection, treatment, and drug repositioning. New technology is enabling researchers to do massively parallel sequencing for comprehensive genome characterization. But, there are challenges, Chin said. Researchers need a reference cancer genome, and need to find a way to integrate all the data they're collecting and make sense of it. New data formats are needed, as are new tools to analyze the data, which should be made accessible and usable, she added.

Johnson and Johnson's William Hait outlined the problems inherent in translating discovery in cancer research to the clinic in order to help patients. The process is inefficient and expensive, tumors are complex, and it's difficult to obtain tissue samples adequate for research, Hait said. There is also the challenge of figuring out drug resistance, dealing with the regulatory environment, and making sure all patients have access to care — which is often too expensive. Despite these challenges, hundreds of potential drugs are being tested and thousands more targets are under consideration or study. "We are entering the golden age of translational cancer research," Hait added.

The Scan

Breast Cancer Risk Related to Pathogenic BRCA1 Mutation May Be Modified by Repeats

Several variable number tandem repeats appear to impact breast cancer risk and age at diagnosis in almost 350 individuals carrying a risky Ashkenazi Jewish BRCA1 founder mutation.

Study Explores Animated Digital Message Approach to Communicate Genetic Test Results to Family Members

In the Journal of Genetic Counseling, the approach showed promise in participants presented with a hypothetical scenario related to a familial hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome diagnosis.

Computational Tool Predicts Mammalian Messenger RNA Degradation Rates

A tool called Saluki, trained with mouse and human messenger RNA data, appears to improve mRNA half-life predictions by taking RNA and genetic features into account, a Genome Biology paper reports.

UK Pilot Study Suggests Digital Pathway May Expand BRCA Testing in Breast Cancer

A randomized pilot study in the Journal of Medical Genetics points to similar outcomes for breast cancer patients receiving germline BRCA testing through fully digital or partially digital testing pathways.