This special alliance of cancer experts, clinicians and researchers from The Jackson Laboratory is singularly focused on improving outcomes for cancer patients across the state.
“I wanted to help people, which I think is very common,” said Jens Rueter, M.D., Medical Director of MCGI and Associate Director for Regional Translational Partnerships at the JAX Cancer Center, on why he chose to specialize in this work. “I was also struck by the complexity of the diseases and how you can really unravel their causes and find treatments.”
Targeting the Achilles’ heel of cancer
The event took place at the Portland Museum of Art and began with a reception. , M.N.p.S., the Laboratory’s Vice President for Advancement, introduced the discussion.
Braun, who is responsible for developing and coordinating the next horizon of large-scale scientific endeavors at JAX, kicked off the conversation with one common question: why is cancer so hard to crack?
Cancer is a very complex disease, Rueter explained, “in fact, it's not one disease. It's probably very many different types of diseases with very complex genetic changes and causes.” To a certain extent, Rueter said, you have to find the “Achilles’ heel” of a given cancer in order to make progress.
That means discovering a genetic abnormality that may be causing cancer, finding a drug to target that abnormality, testing it over and over, and seeing if it works.
“The Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative provides these genomic tests where you can really do a very broad analysis of cancer and identify one or more Achilles’ heels that you can target with a drug,” said Rueter.
Through the initiative, these tests are provided to patients completely free of charge - and the goal is to provide this access to 800 patients over three years. The initiative also educates doctors and helps them select appropriate new therapies for the patient.
What can we do to prevent cancer?
From a wellness standpoint, Braun asked, what steps can we all be taking to prevent or cope with cancer?
Rueter noted that there are clearly interventions and lifestyle changes that have been proven over and over again to be associated with a much lower risk of developing cancer, such as smoking cessation and exercising, the right diet and weight loss. “I strongly believe that these modifications are very important,” said Rueter.
“You should not forget the typical screening procedures for breast cancer, for colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer,” continued Rueter. “That's probably the second-best thing that you can do. If you develop cancer, detect early, and take steps surgically to cure cancer.”
Finally, the speakers shared, participating in genetic screening for a cancer predisposition (when applicable) is important. This can help identify those individuals at risk for developing cancer, which can lead to more effective screening measures.
The first of its kind
In addition to genomic testing, MCGI provides education to clinicians and patients on the complexity of cancer genomics and genetics. Thirdly, and very importantly, Rueter said, it also brings the Maine community together. “The goal is really to form a community genomic network here in Maine and to foster collaborations so that more research can be done on the clinical side,” said Rueter.
“In fact,” he continued, “this initiative is the first of its kind in the country: one where we have this very, very deep partnership between a biomedical research institution that has an NCI-designated basic science cancer center and the clinical communities that are community-based.”
With support from an inaugural gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation, JAX was able to play a pivotal role in creating the MCGI. And as a nonprofit research organization, the Laboratory has many in-house technologies that are being integrated into what the MCGI does on a day-to-day basis.
“We are charged with bringing innovation to science, but also to the biomedical community. And we can take on some of that innovation that comes with new technologies,” said Rueter.
A new ecosystem
“We are at a tremendous point in time in which the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative is really starting to gain momentum, and it is amazing to think of it as an ecosystem,” said Braun at the conclusion of the event.
“MCGI is helping our patients and it's helping doctors learn more about how to use genomics. It's a way for us to translate our research and genomic technologies to the clinic and directly to the patients in a way that we don't necessarily get to do every day with our daily research work. And it's a way of creating a network of oncologists in Maine who didn't previously necessarily work together.”