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Promise and Progress - 2002-2007 The Abeloff Era: Building Upon a Tradition of Excellence

Special Commemorative Issue: The Abeloff Era - Building Upon a Tradition of Excellence

2002-2007 The Abeloff Era: Building Upon a Tradition of Excellence

Date: April 1, 2007


The years 2002-2007 see continued momentum and powerful growth for the Kimmel Cancer Center. Key clinical research findings earn it the  nickname of research powerhouse.The David H. Koch Cancer Research Building opens, the third of the Center’s new clinical and cancer research buildings.

Kimmel Cancer Center is a Research Powerhouse

Scientific journals are researchers’ way of disseminating key findings throughout the research community. Rather than starting from scratch, investigators build on the discoveries of others. In cancer research, the  others” are most often five Kimmel Cancer Center investigators, as reported by Science Watch. With more than 90,000 references between them, Stephen Baylin, James Herman, Kenneth Kinzler, David Sidransky, and Bert Vogelstein are named the most frequently cited in cancer research from 1995 to 2005. Science Watch calls the Kimmel Cancer Center a research powerhouse, with its researchers accounting for the top five spots in the oncology category— researchers, they say, who have had a profound influence on modern scientific thought.

Best of the Best for 15 Years

For the 15th consecutive year, the Kimmel Cancer Center is ranked by the much revered U.S. News & World Report annual feature on “America’s Best Hospitals” among the top three cancer centers in the nation. The center also receives top ranking for the region in the magazine’s most recent report.

The Blueprint for Cancer

The Kimmel Cancer Center group that led the way in defining cancer as a genetic disease uncovers and maps the bulk of culprit genes for colon and breast cancer. What the findings of Bert Vogelstein, Kenneth Kinzler, and Victor Velculescu reveal is the actual blueprint for cancer—a schematic of what is wrong in the control centers of colon and breast cancers.

Their work uncovers about 100 broken genes for each cancer type. It includes genes previously discovered by the group, but the majority are new genes that had not been known to play a role in tumors. Key to these findings is the realization that mutations vary from tumor to tumor, with a combination of at least 20 alterations driving each individual colon or  breast cancer indicating that no two patients’ cancers are identical. The team expects their discoveries to be repeated in other cancers, leading to novel strategies for the detection and treatment of a variety of cancers.

Old Method Brings New Hope to Ovarian Cancer Patients

Ovarian cancer expert Deborah Armstrong leads the way in reevaluating a 50-year-old method for delivering chemotherapy into the abdomen in  women with ovarian cancer. She directs a seven-year study of 400 women that renews interest in the abandoned method when her findings reveal increased survival rates in women with advanced ovarian cancer. In intraperitoneal therapy, or IP, as this new delivery method is called, a spaghetti-like tube is inserted into the patient’s abdomen to bathe the area in high concentrations of anticancer drugs. Armstrong says it appears to be better at destroying lingering cancer cells.Patients also receive traditional intravenous chemotherapy to kill cancer cells that might have spread beyond the abdomen. As a result of the study, the Gynecologic Oncology Group now recommends IP as the new standard for many women with ovarian cancer.

Detecting Breast Cancer

Breast cancer researcher Sara Sukumar reports that it is possible to find breast cancer in a tiny drop of breast fluid. A method to screen body fluids for certain kinds of cells and some of their genetic blueprints provides a new detection tool that may be significantly more accurate than the pathologist’s microscope in spotting breast cancer cells.

The test is called QM-MSP. It simultaneously determines the percentage of a cancerrelated biological process known as methylation in each of four to five known breast cancer genes. The percentages are then added  together and compared to a threshold value. A score above the threshold indicates the potential presence o cancer. Sukumar believes the est could be used in head and neck and lung cancer detection when applied to oral lavages and sputum samples.

Broccoli Sprouts May Prevent Cancer

Sprouts from broccoli seeds contain high concentrations of sulforaphane, a compound with documented cancer prevention capabilities. Now, a team of Cancer Center investigators is harnessing and testing its power in clinical cancer prevention trials. Kala Visvanathan is evaluating whether broccoli sprouts increase the activity of a protective enzyme in breast tissue obtained from women undergoing elective breast surgeries.

In related studies, Jed Fahey finds that in addition to its cancer prevention properties, broccoli sprouts act as an antibiotic against the bacteria that cause gastritis, an underlying factor in ulcers and some stomach cancers. Albena Dinkova-Kostova finds that a broccoli-sprouts topical extract may prevent sun-induced cancers.

Davidson Leads Largest Cancer Professional Group

Breast cancer program director Nancy Davidson is elected 2007 president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, a group of nearly 25,000 clinical oncologists. As the world’s leading professional organization representing physicians who treat people with cancer, ASCO is committed to advancing the education of oncologists and other oncology professionals, advocating for policies that provide access to high-quality cancer care, and supporting the clinical trials system and the need for increased clinical and translational research.

Telomere Expert Receives Nation’s Most Prestigious Award

Carol Greider, one of the world’s pioneering researchers on the structure of chromosome ends known as telomeres, is a recipient of the 2006 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. The Lasker Award, dubbed the “American Nobel” is awarded to Greider for her co-discovery of the enzyme telomerase, an enzyme that maintains the length of telomeres and is believed to be a key factor in cancer development and progression.

Fixing Broken Genes

Stephen Baylin’s pioneering work focusing on mishaps in a cellular process known as DNA methylation that can silence cancer-halting genes is the target for a new cancer therapy. Clinical trials using drugs that block methylation and restore the function of key tumor suppressor genes result in partial or complete remission in up to half of patients with a preleukemic condition known as myelodisplastic syndrome and leukemia. Results from these multicenter trials lead to the first FDA approval of a demethylating agent and earn Baylin recognition from the NCI as the most outstanding SPORE in 2004.

Ovarian Cancer Is Silent No More

Often referred to as the silent cancer, ovarian cancer is well known for its ability to remain hidden until it has advanced. Daniel Chan may have brought the stealth cancer out of hiding with a simple blood test that detects three blood proteins that are unique to ovarian cancer. It is one of many findings coming out of a new Biomarker Discovery Center. Currently, the research team is focusing on the markers for which the best biological evidence exists linking them to ovarian cancer. They hope to improve the test to differentiate as many ovarian cancer patients from non-cancer patients as possible. He believes that combining discovered proteins into a multimarker assay may improve early detection of ovarian cancer.

One Gene Mistake Responsible for Most Thyroid Cancers

A single genetic mistake causes about two-thirds of papillary thyroid cancers. New therapies to counteract the mistake are now being studied.  A mutation of the BRAF gene is found in 68 percent (24 of 35 samples) of papillary thyroid cancers. These tumors account for about 75 percent of thyroid cancers and occur mostly in women. Investigator David Sidransky says this is the first major genetic event identified for common thyroid cancers. His goal is to find better diagnostics and drug therapies designed to target the effects of this mutation.

Statins Cut Prostate Cancer Risk

In a 10-year study of more than 30,000 health professionals, Johns Hopkins and Harvard researchers find that the longer men take cholesterol-lowering drugs, such as statins, the less likely they are to develop advanced prostate cancer. Lead investigator Elizabeth Platz finds that statin-takers cut their risk for advanced disease in half. Although earlier, smaller studies have linked the use of statins to a lower risk of prostate and other cancers, such as breast and colon, this is the first to track medication used before participants got cancer and tie risk reduction to prostate cancer stage.

David H. Koch, a Name to Know in Cancer Research

David H. Koch, philanthropist and executive vice president of the nation’s largest privately owned company, Koch Industries, Inc., commits $20 million to support a new cancer research building at Johns Hopkins. The building is named the David H. Koch Cancer Research Building in his honor.

The 267,000-square-foot building opens in 2006 and expands the complex for cancer investigators on the southwest corner of the medical campus. With five floors of laboratories and 10 stories of officespace, the building is home to researchers in fields including prostate, brain, pancreas, skin, lung, and head and neck cancers. A 250-seat, high-tech auditorium connects this newest research tower with its twin, the Bunting Blaustein Cancer Research Building.

A Heated Approach

Investigators Donald Coffey, Theodore DeWeese, and Robert Getzenberg are deciphering the changes to the nuclear structure of the cancer cell when it is heated. They use a testicular cancer model to prove that cancer cells exposed to heat are easier to kill with drug and radiation therapies. The researchers call their model TEMT (temperature enhanced metastatic therapy) because it explains how even advanced cancers that have spread beyond the original tumor site can be reined in with heat.

In testicular cancer, cancer cells naturally heat up as they migrate from the  cooler testes to other, warmer parts of the body. The researchers are working to artificially create this same heating of cancer cells in prostate cancer. To move the model forward clinically, they devise an approach involving a novel combination of chemistry and imaging technology.

They use something called aptamer polymers, small RNA molecules that attach to iron particles. The iron particles, in turn, naturally attach to cancer cells throughout the body.Patients receiving the aptamer polymers would be given a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. The magnets in the MRI cause the iron particles to move around just enough to heat up the cancer cells they are attached to and potentially make even advanced cancers more vulnerable to anticancertherapies.

Radiation Oncology Earns Departmental Status

Radiation Oncology takes on new importance as the Department of Radiation Oncology and Molecular Radiation Sciences. After a national search, the Kimmel Cancer Center’s own Ted DeWeese is named as the new department’s first chairman. 

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