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SNPtech Reporter Joint US-Africa Effort Turns PGx Tools Toward Cancer Vaccine Development

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Researchers from Pennsylvania’s Windber Research Institute, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, an immunology center affiliated with the US Army, and the nations of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa will apply pharmacogenomics technologies to scores of tissue samples in hopes of developing a breast cancer vaccine.

If the researchers validate their findings — an experimental version of one vaccine is currently being tested on Walter Reed patients — they may play a role in bringing SNP-genotyping and protein-expression technologies into the cancer-vaccine spotlight. If they are successful their work might persuade drug makers that genotyping and proteomic tools can help them uncover biomarkers in this poorly understood corner of oncology.

“We want to set up some of the baseline information that should have been done earlier that no one has done,” says Richard Somiari, Windber’s COO and CSO. “If we collect the tissue in the best possible way … and we have the same platform to analyze these tissues without having to subcontract to different laboratories, then lab-to-lab variation is eliminated.”

The groups plan to collect more than 240,000 breast cancer tissue samples over the next few years and simultaneously perform high-throughput genetic and proteomic expression studies.

Somiari says Windber has collected around 6,000 tissue samples for the breast-cancer project since the facility became operational in October 2001, and intends to control more than 20,000 samples by this time next year. The tissue bank, which also includes demographic data, histopathology reports, and medical histories, can handle 240,000 samples. “The key here is isolating DNA, RNA, and protein from the same sample,” Somiari says. “There is still very little information available based on the transfer of hereditary information from DNA [and] RNA to proteins.”

Windber has also penned a collaboration with the Nigerian Army Medical Corps, and was slated to begin collecting samples from the nation’s military hospitals in October. Somiari, who is Nigerian, says this project is expected to generate approximately 3,000 tissue samples per year. Windber also brought on board Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, each of which has pledged to contribute 3,000 samples annually.

Windber spent around $30 million between 2000 and 2003 to outfit the center, according to Somiari. The US Department of Defense and the state of Pennsylvania paid for most of the equipment, and it costs between $3 million and $5 million to operate the center each year.

Somiari says Windber currently has multiple markers for a vaccine that would target the Her-2 pathway. “The next phase is to develop vaccines for each stage and each clinical phenotype for breast cancer,” he says, adding that next year the facility will begin researching all female reproductive cancers.

According to Somiari no biopharma companies have approached Windber for R&D collaboration, but his group has not yet published results of its vaccine research. “We are new, and we are only working prospectively,” Somiari says. The outcome of the research Windber is doing today “will only be known in about five years’ time, when some [patients] will have recurrences, or some may have died.”

An expanded version of this story appeared in the September 24, 2003, edition of SNPTech Reporter.

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