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Cancer Genome Project will put San Antonio in research spotlight
January 27, 2012

South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics' Dr. Anthony Tolcher says the Alamo City has an opportunity to gain some important ground on the cancer front. (Photo by Erik Reyna, San Antonio Business Journal)

By W. Scott Bailey, San Antonio Business Journal

South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (START), a local health care group that operates one of the world's largest Phase I medical oncology programs, is spearheading the development of a new war on cancer that could have a far-reaching impact.

That effort, dubbed the San Antonio 1,000 Cancer Genome Project, will pull together competing Alamo City physicians, researchers and institutions in a collaborative attempt to amplify and expedite efforts to better attack the deadly disease.

"This is an enormous undertaking," says Dr. Anthony Tolcher, co-founder and president of START.

San Antonio is seeking to become a bigger player in health care and the biosciences - nationally and internationally. The San Antonio genome project could attract widespread support and attention.

Researchers describe cancer as a disease of genetic errors. Officials with the San Antonio cancer initiative say they plan to use the genome sequencing process to examine and compare the differences between normal tissue and tissue from some 1,000 tumors in an effort to improve researchers' understanding of the disease.

Project officials will need to raise roughly $3 million to fund the multi-year initiative.

"The price of genetic sequencing has been falling, and it's been falling very fast," Tolcher explains. "But the power of that data gets stronger and stronger."

Order of magnitude
Tolcher says there have been some sobering discoveries in the last year that have dramatically altered the way researchers address cancer.

"What was always assumed is that there were somewhere between five and 10 (genetic) mutations that led to a cancer," he explains. "In fact, it's closer to 40 to 50 genetic abnormalities. So the magnitude of the problem is so much greater.

"If we can take patients who are newly diagnosed with cancer, get enough of the tissue and extract the DNA, then sequence it and link that to the clinical information, we can follow those patients and understand which genes and gene abnormalities are leading to that patient having a good prognosis or a bad prognosis, or which ones might respond to treatment or not respond to treatment," Tolcher adds. "So it gives us enormous order of magnitude; more information about what is happening."

The list of key players who have already shown an interest in the San Antonio 1,000 Cancer Genome Project is impressive. It includes a number of physicians and researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Trinity University in San Antonio and the local Cancer Therapy & Research Center, to name a few.

BioMed SA, an Alamo City-based biotech booster group, has endorsed the project.

"Once again, San Antonio is demonstrating its national leadership role in disease research," says BioMed SA Chairman Kenneth Trevett about the new cancer genome project. "Clearly, a person's genetic profile matters when it comes to cancer care, but the exact relationship between the tumor genome and treatment methods needs to be further refined. The San Antonio 1,000 Cancer Genome Project, initiated by START, will do that.

"We want to facilitate inter-institutional cooperation and philanthropic support to help ensure (the San Antonio project's) success," adds Trevett, who is also president and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

There is interest from outside of San Antonio, as well.

Dr. Leroy Hood, president and co-founder of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, who helped pave the way for the successful mapping of the human genome, says what San Antonio is attempting to do could be a true game-changer.

"The project falls in the category of big science," he says. "It is a bold effort to attempt to identify the critical information that drives a number of different tumor types to become malignant. It is a big step toward the realization of personalized medicine."

Hood says he could have a role in the project.

Breaking down barriers
Tolcher says START has reached out to one of the largest sequencing vendors in the country, Complete Genomics Inc., to ensure more expeditious results.

Rackspace Hosting, which has its headquarters in San Antonio, says it is currently exploring different ways that the company can help support the San Antonio project.

"Computing and storage are bottlenecks for local research institutions in the quest to get medical breakthroughs," says Rackspace President Lew Moorman. "We hope we can take our expertise in cloud computing and help advance their cause and our community ... ."

Tolcher says there are some researchers and organizations across the nation who have felt compelled to keep their data a secret so that they could compete for more grant funding.

"This (San Antonio project) is going to break down those barriers," he says. "We have 19 pathologists and over 30 surgeons involved who have signed on for this. We are going to use the infrastructure that we have at START already for some of our research."

San Antonio project officials plan to make their data available to cancer researchers locally, nationally and internationally. Those same officials say that their efforts will encourage the development of new research and could attract more companies, further expanding the city's multibillion-dollar bioscience industry.

"This could be a headline project," Hood says. "There are many ways this project could help San Antonio."

Tolcher agrees, noting that the project would not be possible if not for San Antonio's willingness to collaborate.

"This is a monumental task, involving a large number of people, and it's never been done before," he says. "We think we can do something that no one else can."

Cancer Genome Project Name: San Antonio 1,000 Cancer Genome Project Participants: The collaboration of Alamo City researchers and institutions will be spearheaded by South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics. Plan: Project stakeholders expect to use the genome sequencing process to examine and compare the differences between normal tissue and tissue from some 1,000 tumors. Purpose: Participants believe this collaborative effort will expedite researchers' attempts to better understand genetic abnormalities and their relationship with cancer.


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