Emory Report

September 14, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 4

Emory included in new Cancer Genetics Network

Winship Cancer Center has been chosen to be part of a national network that will study cancer as a heritable disease and will address the problems and issues created by genetic testing for cancer.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is funding the Cancer Genetics Network, a national alliance of eight consortiums that will support research into cancer genetics and will address the psychosocial, ethical, legal and public health issues associated with inherited susceptibility to cancer. The NCI will provide up to $6 million for the first year of funding of this initiative. Emory is a member of the Carolina/Georgia Consortium, which also includes Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The Cancer Genetics Network will develop scientific resources and provide access to study populations not currently available to most individual cancer genetics programs," said Richard Klausner, director of the NCI. "This new research infrastructure will position us to capitalize on the remarkable advances taking place in understanding hereditary susceptibility to cancer."

Some questions the network will investigate include whether cancer is more prevalent in certain populations, if environmental factors trigger cancer genes and, once more is learned about the genetic link to cancer, what can be done to treat patients who test positive.

One of the most important issues stressed by the network is ensuring that volunteers for testing and studies receive absolute confidentiality about their participation.

"One of the main concerns for most people who have reason to believe they may have a genetic predisposition to cancer is how they will be treated if they test positive," said William Wood, interim director of the Winship Cancer Center, chair of the Department of Surgery who's Emory's principal investigator for the Cancer Genetics Network. "We hope to discover which cancers are heritable, and patient participation is obviously the most crucial part of this investigation. The network will use the latest safeguards to assure privacy while still pursuing understanding of this important cancer link," he said.

Wood also said the first step will be to look at patients who have tested positive or are at risk for testing positive for a genetic link to breast cancer, for which two genes have already been identified. Other likely diseases to be studied are colon and prostate cancer. Once stripped of patient information, data from the studies will be entered into a national registry that will be available to participating institutions as well as researchers outside of the network.

Recruitment for studies will begin as soon as the network's infrastructure is set up. Individuals at high risk of cancer because of family or personal history will be invited to appear on a roster of potential study participants.

After the network is launched interested individuals will be able to contact the NCI's Cancer Information Service (1-800-4-CANCER) to learn about opportunities to participate.

"We are really only at the beginning of our knowledge of the relationship between genetics and disease, particularly cancer," Wood said. "For the first time we have the tools to understand this relationship. There is a good possibility we will see some remarkable discoveries through this collaborative endeavor much more quickly than we would have through individual efforts."

Participation in the Cancer Genetics Network expands work already being conducted in well-established programs at the Health Sciences Center that address the relationship between cancer and genetics through basic laboratory research, experimental protocols using gene therapy to treat neurologic and liver tumors, genetic screening for breast cancer, and an Oncology Cytogenetics Laboratory that delineates key diagnostic and prognostic markers for blood cancers.

In addition, network researchers will have access to geneticists at Emory's Center for Molecular Medicine who are participating in the Human Genome Project and conducting groundbreaking research on mitochondrial DNA and its relationship to disease.

--Susan Stewart

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