Hoping that the combination of proteomics technologies and molecular imaging will result in new diagnostic tools for the early detection of cancer, the Canary Foundation last week pledged $7.5 million to help create a Center of Excellence for Cancer Early Detection at Stanford University.
The center is the second established by the foundation, following the creation of a similar one at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle three years ago. But whereas the Hutchinson facility concentrates primarily on using proteomics to search for biomarkers, the Stanford facility will specialize in molecular imaging and radiology.
But the university, whose department of radiology will pitch in $4 million to build the center, also plans to create a core proteomics research group at the center, officials from the foundation and Stanford said.
According to Sanjiv Gambhir, the director of the Stanford center and director of molecular imaging at the university, the proteomics work at the Stanford center will complement the work done at the Hutchinson center.
Research will focus on finding biomarkers for four types of cancer — ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, and lung — but because many details of what will be done at the center are yet to be determined, officials did not rule out the possibility that work developing new technologies and methods could also be on the agenda.
Because Hutchinson researchers have been more active in proteomics research into ovarian and lung cancer, it’s anticipated that the proteomics work at Stanford will focus on pancreatic and prostate cancer.
According to Gambhir, the merging of in vitro protein diagnostics with in vivo imaging is a new approach to biomarker discovery that researchers hope will yield greater accuracy and more information in the quest to find cancer biomarkers.
“If I find a biomarker in blood for a given cancer, it aids my ability to use the right molecular imaging agent to find the relative of that biomarker that stayed on the cancer cell surface that was not secreted,” he said. “So the two fields cross-inform each other. You can achieve only so much accuracy by blood testing alone, and by coming in with molecular imaging, you can bring those accuracy levels even higher up than any one field would be alone.”
The goal of the center is to first create diagnostic tests for those at high risk for cancer, then tests for those at moderate risk. The ultimate aim is to use the biomarkers it finds to develop tests that could screen the general population, Gambhir said.
At full capacity, the Stanford center will have 25 to 30 scientists spread among seven to eight labs, he said. The center will be housed in existing space as well as new space that will be leased.
Stanford researchers already use proteomics tools to study cancer, but Gambhir said the center may need to buy additional mass spectrometers, though that has not yet been decided.
The Canary Foundation will have non-exclusive rights to any intellectual property developed at the Stanford center, Gambhir said.
According to Don Listwin, the founder of the Canary Foundation, because government funding for all scientific research remains tight, and proteomics is still too unproven as a science to draw significant interest from the venture capital community, it is up to philanthropic organizations such as his foundation to pick up the slack.
“The way you should think of us, and where we think biomarker discovery is, is that we’re the angel investors right now and we need to get the first working proofs of principle,” he said. “And when we do, I think there’ll be a whole lot more money from both NCI and the venture community.”
“The way you should think of us, and where we think biomarker discovery is, is that we’re the angel investors right now and we need to get the first working proofs of principle.”
Gambhir agreed, saying that it would be “very tough” to fund initiatives such Stanford’s cancer center without help from the philanthropic community. “The NIH funding is traditionally in more proven areas and is more conservative,” he said. “This is still a high-risk area, to really bring together blood biomarkers with imaging, because no one’s doing it.
“And because there’s a whole controversy about the utility of blood biomarkers in general, since it’s unproven especially in earlier cancers, [that] makes it a lot riskier for traditional methods of funding,” he added.
Listwin created the Canary Foundation in 2004 after both his parents were diagnosed with cancer. His father survived his colon cancer but his mother died of ovarian cancer.
Since its creation, the foundation has supported and pushed for greater proteomics research into cancer, especially in the early detection of the disease. Shortly after its formation, it established its first center of excellence at Hutchinson, where some of the leading proteomics research in cancer is being done.
Indeed, the foundation was created at a time when the scientific community was increasingly exploring the use of proteomics technologies and methods in cancer research. In addition to myriad academic projects looking for cancer biomarkers, the fortunes of companies such as Ciphergen, Miraculins, and Proteome Sciences are tightly intertwined with the future of their protein-based cancer diagnostic tests under development.
Most recently, Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin launched a new company, Theranostics Health, that uses a new technology they developed that they say will allow clinicians and drug companies to better target cancer treatments [See PM 03/29/07].
Proteomics has also gotten the attention of government funding agencies. The National Cancer Institute’s Early Disease Research Network supports the development and evaluation of molecular diagnostics for early detection of cancer and is involved in developing biomarkers, including protein biomarkers, for that purpose.
In 2005, the NCI set up a five-year, $104-million program, the Clinical Proteomic Technologies Initiative for Cancer, to assess and develop proteomic tools and data resources for cancer research. Last September, CPTI announced its first awards, $35.5 million spread over five years, given to five winning teams to test and evaluate proteomic technologies applicable to cancer research [See PM 09/28/06]
Charitable organizations and individuals have also jumped on the proteomics boat. A few months ago, the National Foundation for Cancer Research awarded a $1 million, five-year grant to Vanderbilt University to create a center for proteomics-driven cancer research [See PM 12/21/06], and in late-2005 John Blais and Shelley Blais gave $16.5 million to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to create a proteomics center [See PM 12/23/05].
In addition to funding the creation of the Stanford center, last week the Canary Foundation awarded $225,000 to 15 labs in the US, South Korea, and the UK to help them implement the open-source Computational Proteomics Analysis System.
“We continue to use proteomics as part of a portfolio strategy for discovery of markers,” said Listwin, a former CEO of software company Openwave Systems, and former executive vice president at technology giant Cisco Systems. “We don’t have a clear understanding of what the normal proteome is. We should, so we can do a little subtraction and find out if what we discovered is normal or not.”