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Monday, March 11, 2013

Tom Still: With technologies that look inside cells, fight against cancer poised to advance


By Tom Still
The war against cancer has many fronts. The fight wages on the prevention side, with long-term campaigns against smoking and other known health hazards, as well as the treatment front, with accelerated advances in diagnostics and therapies.

One of the emerging battlegrounds is location: Bringing cancer-fighting technologies to people regardless of where they live.

That's the thinking behind the creation of the Wisconsin Oncology Network of Imaging Excellence, a project that promises to bring the latest work of the UW-Madison Carbone Cancer Center to a network of treatment centers across Wisconsin.

Thanks to the mapping of the human genome, and the related explosion of knowledge about proteins, enzymes, genetic markers, targeted therapeutics and "personalized medicine," researchers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are making headway across many lines. There won't be a single cure for cancer – but there may be a number of diagnostics and therapies that will help detect cancers sooner and fight them more effectively.

Molecular imaging is one such tool. With the help of private partners such as GE Healthcare, the Carbone Cancer Center has become a national leader in developing next-generation imaging strategies that help medical professionals peer inside the cell itself. Molecular imaging involves visualizing and measuring biological processes at the molecular level – where a cell's components do their work – as well as the level of the cell itself.

Molecular imaging has enormous potential for patient care. It reveals the clinical biology of the disease process and has the potential to personalize a patient's care. For example, rather than assuming that a given cancer patient is the "average" cancer patient with the "average" cancer that will respond to the "average" treatment, molecular imaging helps define the biologic characteristics of the patient, the tumor and the early response to treatment.

The trouble with molecular imaging is that most of the R&D centers for such work are clustered around a relatively few major research universities, and access to such diagnostics – or even clinical trials – can be driven largely by geography.

In short, your chances of surviving a bout with cancer may very well be determined by where you live.

As the molecular imaging work of the Carbone Cancer Center and its partners has matured, the next step was obvious: Making it available to more people statewide.

That's why Gov. Scott Walker included $3.75 million in his proposed state budget bill to build on existing investments by the UW-Madison and the private sector, nearly $200 million in total, with the goal of providing better access to clinical trials across the state.

It won't happen overnight, but the goal is to launch a few clinical trials in the Cancer Canter's existing network over several years. That network includes 17 oncology care sites across Wisconsin, including some that are not equipped to handle full-blown trials.

"Clinical trials are extraordinarily useful for understanding patient care and they can become even more so with advanced molecular imaging protocols," said Dr. George Wilding, director of the Carbone Cancer Center. "This program will radically change the inequality in access to the patient care enabled by advanced imaging."

The benefits of cancer research and product development to human health is obvious, but less recognized is the economic effect of the disease itself – and the investment in combating it.

More than 11,200 people in Wisconsin died from cancer in 2010, according to state health records, or one-fourth of all deaths in the state that year. The cost of treating cancer in Wisconsin is expected to grow to $4 billion by 2015, a recent study concluded. Finding ways to diagnose and treat cancer earlier can save lives – and dollars.

Researchers at the Carbone Cancer Center receive and spend about $150 million in grants and other research awards every year, which creates jobs directly and indirectly while maintaining an infrastructure that is outfitted to fight against cancer.

As one of first comprehensive cancer centers in the nation, the Carbone Cancer Center is a Wisconsin asset. It will become even more valuable as its molecular imaging breakthroughs become more available statewide.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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