[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic]
A Phoenix medical-research group has landed two multimillion-dollar contracts that give it a key role in an ambitious U.S. project aimed at solving the genetic riddle of common forms of cancer.
In a development that underscores Arizona’s leading role in medical research, the International Genomics Consortium was awarded nearly $59 million to collect, process and store tumor samples for the federal Cancer Genome Atlas project.
The contracts also are a reflection of Arizona’s efforts to generate high-paying research jobs in the biosciences, local industry experts say.
“The key is that they selected Arizona for a leadership role for the second phase of this project,” said Dr. Robert Penny, IGC’s chief executive officer.
IGC said it has signed a five-year, $21.4 million contract to secure cancer-tumor samples for the Atlas project. It also has received a preliminary five-year, $37.5 million contract extension to continue its role as a tissue bank for the federal project.
The Atlas project aims to map the genetic clues of cancer that may yield new ways to treat or prevent diseases that kill more than a half-million Americans each year.
IGC’s contracts will help support the downtown laboratory’s staff of 45 scientists, lab technicians, project managers and office workers and add up to 10 more positions. Just as important as the local jobs, Penny said, is the potential for creating Arizona-based spin-off companies as researchers seek to develop new drugs and tests based on Atlas-generated information.
The non-profit IGC has been part of Atlas since the National Cancer Institute and National Human Genome Research Institute research project launched in 2006. IGC has served as the “biospecimen core resource,” where tumor samples are stored and clinical data collected and shared with other scientists who analyze molecular information from the tumor samples.
The scope of Atlas has been compared to the Human Genome Project, a 13-year project that mapped the genes in human DNA and was completed in 2003. Scientists have used the Human Genome Project to understand diseases and develop new drugs.
The Atlas project started as a three-year pilot focused on brain, lung and ovarian cancers. The second phase of the project, funded with $275 million in federal stimulus dollars, will be expanded to 20 types of cancer.
Scientists involved in cancer research say the federal research project is vital to track all the genetic malfunctions that can trigger cancer.
“We must understand the cancer genome and we must understand it for all the common tumors,” said Dr. David Alberts, director of the University of Arizona’s Arizona Cancer Center. “If we don’t approach it in a global way, we will miss opportunities.”
Penny said the Phoenix lab will expand its ties with Arizona hospitals. IGC already secures tumor samples from Scottsdale Healthcare and has held preliminary talks to forge similar arrangements with St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, Banner Health and University Medical Center in Tucson. IGC also will gather tissue samples from as many as 14 out-of-state hospitals and train workers at participating hospitals about its tissue-collection protocols.
Samples are sent to IGC’s downtown Phoenix lab, processed and stored in liquid-nitrogen containers.
IGC sends the tumor and corresponding clinical information about the patients to research centers where the genetic information is sequenced and characterized. The genetic information eventually will be made public and available to all scientists.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital of Columbus, Ohio, also was named as a contractor for the tissue bank part of the project, with an initial contract worth $5.5 million. It is likely that other groups will be involved in collecting tissue samples.
More than a dozen universities and research labs will handle different aspects of the Atlas project, such as genetic sequencing and data analysis.
Metro Phoenix bioscience experts say the Atlas project brings recognition to local efforts to add research jobs and make medical breakthroughs in Arizona.
“To land federal research grants of this scope is illustrative of the national role that Arizona organizations are playing in the biosciences,” said Jack Jewett, president and chief executive officer of Flinn Foundation, which has invested in and promoted the biosciences in Arizona.
IGC Chairman Richard Mallery launched IGC nearly a decade ago after his wife died of cancer. The downtown lab was an initial anchor of the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which also includes the Translational Genomics Research Institute, the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix and other public and private-research groups.