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San Antonio cancer initiative chooses partner in sequencing project
November 3, 2015

WuXi NextCODE chosen to map genome from data over past 3 years

By Filipa Ioannou, Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News

Three years ago, a San Antonio-based clinical research company led the launch of the largest community-driven effort to sequence the cancer genome — a multimillion-dollar project that will make the genomic information of hundreds of tumor samples available online, for free, to any researchers who want it.

In the months since, funds were raised for the new nonprofit, software developed and tissue samples collected. Now, after test runs with several companies, the genome project has announced the choice of WuXi NextCODE as its partner for the next and most expensive step: the actual sequencing of the genome.

“Now comes the part we’ve all been working for, generating the data,” said Dr. Anthony Tolcher, director of clinical research for South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics, the company at the lead of the project. “You really want to have as many people looking at that data as possible.”

START is a San Antonio-based research company that conducts Phase I clinical trials for cancer drugs at four locations around the world, including here and one just announced in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A Phase I trial is typically the first time in the development process that a drug is tested in humans.

Since the 2012 launch of the San Antonio 1000 Cancer Genome Project, START has collected more than 1,000 paired specimens from patients with the 10 most common types of cancer. Samples include tumor tissue and healthy tissue from the same patient so the two can be compared. Breast, lung, prostate, skin, colorectal, uterine, pancreatic, ovarian, stomach, and brain cancers are represented.

For Lana Neukirch, a donor whose ovarian cancer is in remission, the decision to donate came from a desire to help researchers expand knowledge of her own poorly understood type of cancer. She was initially misdiagnosed with colon cancer and found the doctors at START through her husband, who had lung cancer.

“It’s lucky I got to the right doctors pretty quickly. They asked me if I would donate my tumor to the tumor bank, not so much that it would ever help me, but to help women down the line to try and figure out what was causing this type of cancer,” she said. “Hopefully they could make leaps and bounds into cures.”

Because it is powered by volunteers, the Genome Project has deep ties with the local community unusual for an ambitious multimillion-dollar research initiative. It depends on donations, not just of money and of tissue, but also of time.

“This project essentially has no employees. Everyone has volunteered their time and effort. There are zero egos associated with it. All the money goes into sequencing,” Tolcher said.

The project is independent of government funding and has raised $2 million through crowd funding, according to START. The largest individual donation came in late 2014 from Tim Duncan of San Antonio Spurs.

Cancer claimed the lives of both of Duncan’s parents. His mother had breast cancer and passed away the day before his 14th birthday; his father died of prostate cancer in 2002. Duncan donated $247,000 to the genome project and praised the fact that the results would be freely shared.

Once online, the database will be open access, and registered users will be able to download information through the cloud. Unlike many other sequencing projects, START will connect the genomic data with patient clinical information, provided anonymously, with the hope that this combination will yield new insights for researchers.

WuXi NextCODE is a global company, working on government-sponsored sequencing initiatives from the United Kingdom to Qatar. But at its roots, the Genome Project is as much a local effort as it is one of clinical oncology and big data, one in which patients see promise in the potential to fight cancer with improved knowledge. And although doctors see big data as the potential hero of this story, for donors, the human side of care was just as important in their decision to donate tissue.

“There’s no ovarian cancer in my family. And yet at the age of 82 I found out I had Stage 3C ovarian cancer. I had absolutely no idea that I could possibly have cancer.” said Anna Seal, a tissue donor who has been a nurse for 62 years. “When they asked me, I was more than happy to give my tissue so that someone could possibly profit from the information in the future.”

For Seal, the care shown by the doctors at START made it easier to be patient in the face of the treatment process.

“When I see Dr. Tolcher, we can discuss almost anything I need to, and I never get the feeling that he’s in a hurry. So when I have to wait to see him, I don’t mind. I know it’s because he’s doing that for somebody else.”

fioannou@express-news.net

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