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Taking on cancer

Taking on cancer Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD

Since passage of the National Cancer Act of 1971, research has improved understanding of this often life-threatening disease, leading to better detection, treatment and supportive care. As a result, there are about 12 million cancer survivors in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

However, the battle is far from over. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year more than 1.6 million new cancer cases in the United States will be diagnosed and about 580,000 Americans will die from this disease. The sequester-related cutbacks have sliced into research, adding another hurdle to developing and testing innovative cancer therapies -- decelerating decades of progress in finding cures.

But these headwinds must not stop our progress. Instead, we need to think more creatively than ever before about making the most of every research dollar to develop treatments and novel approaches to prevention and early detection.

At the University of Chicago, researchers have found inspiration in the complex interplay between the environment and our bodies. Breast cancer specialist Suzanne Conzen, MD, and psychologist Martha McClintock, PhD, developed powerful models to unravel the elusive link between stress and cancer. In response to stress, cellular signaling mediated by a hormone instructs tumor cells to grow in an aggressive form of breast cancer. Disrupting this signal increases the sensitivity of the tumor cells to cancer therapy, holding promise for new breast cancer treatments now under investigation at UChicago.

Cancer research also has learned from the biology of the heart. Oncologists and cardiologists have teamed up to study mitochondria, tiny structures found in each cell, but especially prevalent in cardiac muscle. Mitochondria regulate metabolism, energy use and cell division. By altering two biochemical signals that control the numbers of mitochondria in cells, UChicago researchers were able to prevent tumor cells from dividing and to shrink human lung cancers in the laboratory.

One emerging trend in cancer research is the use of high-speed computation. Research always has relied on data. But the emergence of industrial-strength computers provides access to "big data" to rapidly sort through vast stores of genetic or clinical information to unravel the secrets of a disease. UChicago cancer researcher Richard Jones, PhD, used this approach to pinpoint more than 1,000 new protein interactions that could become new targets for breast cancer drugs.

The fight against cancer also involves partnerships with other stakeholders. This spring, significant private funding helped scale up another big-data clinical project: the Pancreatic Cancer Genomic Medicine Initiative. A team of our scientists is collecting genetic information from hundreds of patients and their tumors in an attempt to improve assessment, decision-making and treatment for pancreatic cancer, which has not seen significant advances in 20 years.

We now know that every cancer is unique, made up of a mix of mutations that define the tumor’s specific behavior and possibly its response to treatment. Knowledge of a cancer’s genetic fingerprint holds great promise to guide better treatment choices. Recently, Tanguy Seiwert, MD, Everett Vokes, MD, and their team have determined the genetic fingerprints from patients with head and neck cancers, and found multiple new mutations that are potentially ideal targets for developing more precise therapies. These results are being featured at ASCO's 2013 Annual Meeting, the largest assembly of the world’s cancer community.

Cancer is a scary word. The University of Chicago, a leading center for cancer treatment and research, will spare no effort in advancing our knowledge of cancer and in pushing the limits of science to combat the disease.

Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD
Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, University of Chicago
Dean, Biological Sciences Division and Pritzker School of Medicine