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New Mexico researchers part of mission to break down cancer barriers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Science is on the cusp of breakthroughs that can “end cancer as we know it,” but researchers need to break down barriers that hinder the flow of data and

discoveries, Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday in a video address to cancer specialists and others who participated in a Cancer Moonshot Summit in Albuquerque and other sites across the United States.

“These are breakthroughs that are just beyond our grasp,” said Biden, who has called for a “moonshot” to accelerate the pace of cancer research. “The goal of the moonshot is to propel us forward today. The moonshot is carrying the hopes and dreams of millions of people who want us to succeed.”

Researchers who attended a regional summit at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center welcomed Biden’s call for sharing data and information, which too often remain hidden behind layers of institutional bureaucracy.

“The problem is everybody is developing databases, and the databases don’t talk to each other,” said Dennis McCance, a UNM professor of pathology. “All these complications slow things down.”

Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, was among hundreds of scientists, oncologists and patients invited to Howard University in Washington, D.C., for the daylong event, while thousands more participated at some 270 regional summits. It is the largest event since President Barack Obama announced the initiative this year in his State of the Union Address.

Shiraz Mishra, left, a University of New Mexico cancer researcher, listens to Dennis McCance, a UNM professor of pathology, during a panel discussion during the Cancer Moonshot Summit on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Shiraz Mishra, left, a University of New Mexico cancer researcher, listens to Dennis McCance, a UNM professor of pathology, during a panel discussion during the Cancer Moonshot Summit on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

NBC Nightly News featured UNM’s leukemia research, and an interview with Willman, on Tuesday to introduce a report about the Cancer Moonshot Summit.

New Mexico is well-positioned to benefit from the Cancer Moonshot, McCance said during a panel discussion that followed Biden’s address. New Mexico’s small population has required oncologists here to pool resources and share information in ways that anticipate Biden’s call to break down silos, he said.

Cancer medicine is entering a new era, using drugs that target specific mutations identified by gene sequencing of cancerous tumors. The advances offer opportunities for new treatments, but also great challenges for sharing and analyzing huge amounts of genetic data.

UNM last year joined the ORIEN research collaboration with 11 other U.S. cancer centers to pool genetic data from cancerous tumors and more quickly match patients to targeted treatments. ORIEN collaborators were eager to include New Mexico data because the state has large Hispanic and Native American populations, which are underrepresented in the nationwide database, McCance said.

Since January, UNM has recruited the first 60 cancer patients – most of them ovarian cancer patients – whose genetic data and clinical trial outcomes will be included in the database with thousands of other patients across the United States, McCance said. UNM soon plans to expand the program to include New Mexico patients with 10 other cancer types, he said.

Biden emphasized the need for U.S. cancer centers to reach out to underserved groups, including Native Americans.

Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation, urged researchers to do more to help Native people, who struggle with environmental contamination from decades of uranium mining and the recent Gold King Mine spill, which dumped heavy metals into the San Juan River.

“It’s finally about time that the federal government recognized the needs in Indian Country,” said Nez, who participated in the summit in Albuquerque.

UNM research

UNM researchers earned national attention in 2011 when they identified a pair of harmful gene mutations prevalent among Hispanic and Native American children suffering from a deadly form of blood cancer.

The research led to effective treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, which takes an especially deadly form in Hispanic and Native American children. The work played a key role in UNM’s designation last year as a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, putting it among elite U.S. cancer centers.

The moonshot initiative will bring no immediate funding to UNM or to cancer centers nationally. Biden has said he wants to increase yearly cancer research spending to $1 billion by 2021, but the budget must be approved by Congress.

Biden also urged researchers to expand the number of patients enrolled in cancer clinical trials, which offer cancer patients access to promising new treatments. He noted that only 4 percent of U.S. cancer patients are enrolled in clinical trials.

To better help New Mexico’s small, scattered population of cancer patients, UNM formed the nonprofit New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance in 2002 to pool cancer patients across the state to entice drug companies to offer clinical trials here. As a result, at least 15 percent of New Mexico cancer patients today are enrolled in clinical trials, said Oliver Rixe, associate director for clinical research at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.

But New Mexico needs to do better at enrolling patients in potentially lifesaving trials, Rixe said. “It’s ridiculous. It should be 60, 70, 80 percent,” he said.


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