Press Release December 18, 2013

Maine Cancer Foundation funds JAX-MMC-EMMC ‘virtual clinical trials’ for triple-negative breast cancer

Bar Harbor, Maine--The Jackson Laboratory, in collaboration with Maine Medical Center and Eastern Maine Medical Center, is launching a two-year, statewide “virtual clinical trial” with $212,000 in grant funding from the Maine Cancer Foundation, with the goal of finding effective drug treatments for triple-negative breast cancer patients.

The study will focus on validating the use of PDX (for patient-derived xenograft) mouse models, which are capable of hosting human tumors, as “avatars” or stand-ins for clinical drug trials, instead of testing drugs on patients.

Jackson Professor Carol Bult, Ph.D., program leader of the PDX/Avatar program at The Jackson Laboratory Cancer Center, will launch the collaborative effort with MMC and EMMC. The pilot program will collect live tumor samples from volunteer patients across the state and rush them to The Jackson Laboratory, where they will undergo DNA sequencing before being implanted in the PDX mice.

Bult comments, “This highly collaborative, Maine-focused study will advance the application of the Cancer Avatar concept to a clinically challenging cancer with the long-term goal of improving cancer treatment options and outcomes for all triple-negative breast cancer patients.”

The PDX/Avatar mice have been specially developed to act as living hosts for cancer tumors, allowing researchers much greater flexibility in studying cancer growth and testing for effective drug treatments. A single tissue sample can be sub-divided and implanted in tens or hundreds of identical mice, allowing for multiple tests at the same time. 

“We have high hopes for this new approach,” says Tara Hill, Executive Director of Maine Cancer Foundation.  “A traditional clinical trial requires volunteer patients and can take years to show results, just for a single drug test. A ‘virtual clinical trial’ using PDX/Avatar mice could drastically shorten the testing process and potentially identify treatments for cancer types we can’t currently target, such as triple-negative breast cancer.”

Triple-negative breast cancer (so called because it lacks three key genetic characteristics found in other breast cancers) has been extremely difficult for oncologists to treat, requiring a “kitchen sink” approach to stop tumor growth. The lack of targeted drugs for triple-negative breast cancer means that patients have few reliable options.

“We are particularly pleased to support this work because of the collaboration it will spark between Maine’s cancer researchers and clinicians,” says Hill. “We feel the academic institutions and the direct care institutions both benefit when they work together on efforts like this. This project will convene a monthly Avatar Review Board to share data and refine the sampling and testing processes.”

Hill also noted that, while this particular study will focus on triple-negative breast cancer, the technique may prove be applicable to many cancer types. “Fast testing, improved treatments, better outcomes,“ says Hill. “We can do this.” 
The Jackson Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution based in Bar Harbor, Maine, with a facility in Sacramento, Calif., and a new genomic medicine institute in Farmington, Conn. It employs more than 1,500 staff, and its mission is to discover precise genomic solutions for disease and empower the global biomedical community in the shared quest to improve human health.