Win Win

Exceptional Science Meets Advanced Medicine with Wistar's Latest Partnership

This summer, The Wistar Institute entered into an historic collaborative partnership with the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, part of the State of Delaware’s largest medical provider, the Christiana Care Health System. 

The partnership brings together one of the first National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Centers for research in the nation with one of the first NCI-selected Community Cancer Centers in the nation. By connecting Wistar researchers with Christiana Care doctors, the two institutions hope to speed the translation of basic science research into cancer care. 

The Helen F. Graham Cancer Center

“Eighty-five percent of oncology care is given in the community at places such as the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center,” said Dario C. Altieri, M.D., director of The Wistar Institute Cancer Center and Robert and Penny Fox Distinguished Professor. “This is where we want to see patients, where new therapies can meet naïve tumors.”

Naïve tumors, Altieri says, are invaluable for research. Traditionally, most samples are collected from large academic medical centers, which are often seen as the option of last resort for patients who have failed previous rounds of therapy or whose disease has advanced and spread. Tumor specimens collected for study at these centers are genetically distinct from naïve tumors, as they have “evolved” to survive treatment or to spread through the body. By testing new therapies against naïve tumors, researchers can obtain a better idea of how drugs might perform at community hospitals, the “frontline” of the fight against cancer.

“This partnership will bring cutting- edge cancer research to these patients in the community, while also providing outstanding opportunities for collaboration with our clinical colleagues that will inform our laboratory work and hopefully, ultimately, lead to better cancer therapies,” Altieri said.

Indeed, Wistar could find no better partner in the region with which to collaborate to conduct clinical trials. At 24 percent, the Graham Cancer Center has one of the nation’s highest patient accrual rates into cancer clinical trials, far above the national average of four percent. Formed in 2002, the Graham Cancer Center is also one of the most technologically advanced and largest cancer programs on the East Coast, recording more than 170,000 patient visits last year.

All of today’s standard treatments for cancer for cancer began as ideas taken from basic scientific research and translated into practical medicine through clinical trials. Patients who volunteer to participate in clinical trials often have the first chance to benefit from an effective new therapy. Early phase trials evaluate how a new drug should be given (by mouth, injected into a vein, or injected into the muscle), how often, and what dose is safe. They also evaluate how well the new drug works against a particular kind of cancer.

“Collaborative initiatives between the two institutions will focus on specific translational oncology research projects, with the goal of enhancing opportunities for joint funding and joint publications between scientists at Wistar, the Graham Cancer Center and other institutions,” said Nicholas J. Petrelli, M.D., Bank of America endowed medical director of the Graham Cancer Center and newly appointed associate director for translational research at the Wistar Institute Cancer Center.“The National Cancer Institute-supported facilities of both organizations will interact and share resources and expertise as appropriate to advance collaborative research projects.”

Initially, the Wistar-Christiana Care partnership will focus on colon cancer stem cells, targeted treatments for melanoma and novel approaches for molecular profiling, and treatment of advanced and metastatic disease. Both partners expect the scope of research to expand as they begin collaborative study. 

For example, Altieri and his colleagues recently demonstrated in mice that low doses of an anti-cancer drug currently in development, called Gamitrinib, sensitize tumor cells to a second drug called TRAIL, also in development. The drug combination kills tumor cells in mice and in human glioblastoma (the most common and aggressive form of brain cancer) cells. It is the type of laboratory research Wistar conducts that is directly relevant to trials in humans. Likewise, the Graham Cancer Center could be an invaluable partner for establishing the effectiveness of blood-based markers in predicting lung cancer, a technique being developed in the laboratory of Wistar Professor Louise C. Showe, Ph.D. 

Perhaps just as importantly for future research, the Graham Cancer Center can provide tumor samples to Wistar for further preclinical study through its Tissue Procurement Center, one of only a few non-university based programs in the country. 

“It is too soon to tell where this collaboration will lead, but it is entirely clear that this is a win-win situation for both Wistar and Graham Cancer Center,” Altieri said.