At the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) and UPMC CancerCenter, an important part of our mission as a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center is to promote research and implementation of strategies for cancer prevention and early detection. Here are just a few of our recent initiatives in these most critical areas.
We were delighted to learn recently that UPCI researchers will lead several multidisciplinary, inter-institutional efforts that aim to accelerate research into the early detection of cancer through newly awarded grants from the NCI’s Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) program. These projects seek to discover, develop, and validate tests to detect cancer biomarkers in body fluids like blood, with the hope that such tests will lead to early diagnosis of cancer and improved outcomes for patients.
One of the new EDRN teams is led by Pitt gastroenterologist Randall Brand, MD, Professor of Medicine, together with colleagues from the University of Nebraska. Their goal is to assemble and maintain a large repository of bloodand tissue samples that can be used to validate biomarkers for early diagnosis and risk prediction of pancreatic neoplasms. This is a critical unmet need because of the prevalence and gravity of pancreatic cancer in the US.
Another EDRN team, led by Robert Schoen, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine, with colleagues from Johns Hopkins University, is evaluating blood markers for colon cancer, both as a means of early detection and for monitoring of disease recurrence in patients with newly diagnosed early stage colon cancer.
And just this week, we learned that a third EDRN grant will be awarded to James Herman, MD, who will lead a team at UPCI together with colleagues from Johns Hopkins University to develop ultrasensitive methods for DNA methylation detection. Using blood and sputum samples collected in the Pittsburgh Lung Screening Study, they aim to improve upon computed tomography-based lung cancer detection.
Pitt investigators are also collaborating on EDRN projects led by colleagues at other institutions. Dr. Brand is a coinvestigator for a second team geared toward discovering biomarkers for pancreatic cancer led by researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center. In addition, Anna Lokshin, PhD, Professor of Medicine, is contributing to efforts led by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to evaluate potential biomarkers for breast, colorectal and ovarian cancers.
Our focus on early detection is not limited to blood or tissue biomarkers, but extends to other modalities as well. Indeed, last year Pitt physician-investigator, Wendie Berg, MD, PhD, Professor of Radiology, launched a major NCI-funded trial to optimize individualized approaches to screening for early detection of breast cancer. This study is assessing the utility of two approaches, whole breast ultrasound and digital breast tomosynthesis, for early diagnosis of breast cancer through the UPMC network of breast imaging centers.
Our interest in early detection and screening is coupled with research and implementation efforts in cancer prevention. In the research space, we are delighted that Olivera Finn, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Immunology, was recently selected as the third NCI Outstanding Investigator Award recipient from the University of Pittsburgh. This seven-year grant will allow her team to address her career-long interest in advancing cancer vaccine strategies as a means to prevent common cancers like colon cancer.
Finally, an important goal of ours is to educate the public and promote the adoption of what we already know can prevent cancer. To that end, our cancer leadership has been very active in advocating for uptake of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as a means of preventing HPV-related head and neck and cervical cancers, by speaking with the news media and testifying before the Allegheny County Health Department to support HPV vaccination for students as they return to school. Most recently we have supported regulation to apply the same restrictions to electronic cigarettes that are currently in place for tobacco cigarettes as a means of improving health.
We truly see prevention and early diagnosis as cornerstones of our multipronged approach toward the goal of a world without cancer.