Experts Say Cancer Research Should Focus on Prevention

George Washington University and ICF International explore new directions for personalized medicine with patients at its core.

The federal government's Precision Medicine Initiative framed the panel discussion “21st Century Research: At the Crossroads Between Clinical and Population Sciences" hosted by GW and ICF International at the Jack Morton Auditorium.
November 25, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

George Washington University Cancer Center Director Eduardo Sotomayor likens the progressive stages of cancer to reading the chapters of a book. Researchers who study the disease and health care providers have too long focused their work on the final chapter, he said.

“The best treatment is prevention and early detection,” Dr. Sotomayor told the audience at the Jack Morton Auditorium Monday morning for the panel discussion, “21st Century Research: At the Crossroads Between Clinical and Population Sciences.”

“Currently most of the investment is in the last chapter of this book, so we are investing our dollars in treatment, diagnosis and survivorship, but we need to start focusing on prevention, lifestyle and diet.”

Dr. Sotomayor joined moderator and Milken Institute School of Public Health Dean Lynn Goldman and National Cancer Institute Director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Robert Croyle for the quarterly conversation hosted by GW and ICF International. 

The event was a product of the partnership between GW and ICF International to explore research opportunities in federal health programs such as genetics and genomics and survey methods. The GW Office of the Vice President for Research helped to coordinate the event. GW President Steven Knapp said the partnership is “a model for working relationships between academia and the private sector.”

"We need to start focusing on prevention, lifestyle and diet," George Washington University Cancer Center Director Eduardo Sotomayor said. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

“I believe this kind of partnership will become increasingly important as the challenges of rising health care costs continue to emerge, and the entire system is redefined because of the changing market dynamics brought about by the Affordable Care Act,” Dr. Knapp said.

Panelists discussed the importance of collaborative “team science” across disciplines, holistic data collection and health care information management systems in improving cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, especially in underserved communities

According to Dr. Goldman, the conversation comes at a critical time for cancer research at GW, which is on the verge of a campus-wide “unified effort” to address the disease led by the GW Cancer Center. The national conversation also has changed following the launch of the federal government’s Precision Medicine Initiative last January.

President Barack Obama announced the initiative during the 2015 State of the Union address. It aims to develop medical treatment and patient care programs based on personalized data, including genetics, lifestyle and environment.

When applied to cancer screenings, the “precision” approach would redefine how a patient’s risk of cancer is classified and evaluated, Dr. Croyle said.

“We will probably look back on this era and laugh about the fact that our cancer risk screening and prediction models did not include factors beyond age,” Dr. Croyle said.

Dr. Sotomayor recounted how the Moffitt Cancer Center found success using a personalized approach to data collection. The center launched the Total Cancer Care Initiative in 2006 and has collected long-term data from tens of thousands of patients to build a comprehensive database.

The program—which stores the data for future research—became a basis for the Orion Cancer ID Consortium. To date, 10 centers have joined the consortium to pool their data for research.

Patients receiving treatment were asked for permission to have their medical history tracked, their personal data collected and their cancer tissue studied. To manage privacy concerns, the center consulted with a patient advocacy group and an ethics committee, Dr. Sotomayor said.

“We have to keep patients a part of these initiatives because at the end of the day, it is their data,” Dr. Sotomayor said. “They are donating it to us so that we can better address their concerns—better treatment and better care.”

Panelists agreed that improved data collection could spur many changes, including a greater need for health research information systems and a better understanding of how factors such as nutrition, demographic data and genetic trends affect cancer risk.

This wealth of information is also a spark for cross-disciplinary “team science” that calls for training researchers—especially those from unexpected disciplines—to work in large, collaborative teams, according to Dr. Croyle. 

“It’s important to look across the university and leverage the expertise in arts and sciences, because it is something often underutilized at cancer centers,” Dr. Croyle said. “We need geographers to be involved in cancer control. We need people with experience in cultural anthropology. We need economists, and we need mathematicians.

ICF International Chairman Sudhakar Kesavan offered closing remarks. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

“A cancer center can be a catalytic force and a convening force, but it is also a bridge to the community,” Dr. Croyle said.

Dr. Sotomayor emphasized how the GW Cancer Center is working to prioritize “service to the community” and build cross-disciplinary partnerships campus wide.

He and School of Engineering and Applied Science Biomedical Engineering Department Chair Igor Efimov are brainstorming opportunities to engage biomedical engineering students and faculty in developing nanotechnology tools for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

He added that the Cancer Center location on the eighth floor of Science and Engineering Hall will offer the necessary proximity to other research disciplines to promote cross-disciplinary research.

“This is just the beginning,” Dr. Sotomayor said. “There are so many great opportunities for us to collaborate.”