News & Information | START In The News

May 21st, 2010
San Antonio HCB Magazine

Banking On A Breakthrough

South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (START), San Antonio, TX

Cancer research group launches nation’s only non-government, open access tumor bank, Innovative new tool will accelerate cancer research and the discovery of new treatments worldwide.

SAN ANTONIO, TX, South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (START), is breaking new ground today by opening the only community-based, open access tumor bank, which, unlike most tumor banks, will make tumor tissue gifted by patients treated in south Texas available to any researcher located anywhere in the world who is actively involved in cancer research or the discovery of new therapies. START currently operates the largest Phase I program in the world for new anti-cancer agents with an estimated 365 patients on open trials.

The START Tumor Bank’s mission to provide tissue to all researchers actively involved in cancer research is fundamentally different from those of most other tumor banks. START officials hope that creating this extraordinary and innovative model of making tumor tissue more widely available will, in fact, accelerate cancer research.

Presently, almost all tumor banks are connected with, or exist within, university academic centers and the tissue housed there is available only to researchers at that institution. Conversely, the majority of new anticancer drug development is performed by researchers in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry or in non-profit or charitable institutes, and not within the University setting. This is one of the few tumor banks in existence that will work with researchers according to this open access model.

START directs clinical trials of novel anticancer agents and is headquartered at San Antonio's South Texas Medical Center. START’s physicians are nationally recognized as thought leaders in cancer research. In addition, START is affiliated with South Texas Oncology & Hematology (STOH), which has offices in several locations in south Texas, and is building a 120,000-square-foot, comprehensive cancer center in San Antonio’s South Texas Medical Center. Together, STOH and START are considered one of the largest oncology practices in the region.

Dr. Anthony Tolcher, MD, director of clinical research for START said, “This exciting initiative will allow patients to donate tumor tissue obtained at their diagnosis, and then directly connect their donated tissue to researchers working actively on the discovery of new agents for the treatment and cure of cancer.”

Tolcher said, “The best part is we have made it easy for patients interested in participating - they need do nothing more than sign a consent form for their tumor to go to the START Tumor Bank.” He said, “South Texas has long recognized the importance of cancer research, as well as the need to remove barriers to research and discovery of innovative therapies. The START Tumor bank will represent San Antonio’s ongoing commitment to these goals for generations to come.”

According to Dr. Robert Maki, MD PhD, medical oncologist and co-leader of the Adult Sarcoma disease management team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, “Without actual human cancer tissue to test, it is nearly impossible to predict who might benefit from new drugs as they become available.“ Maki said, “Another impediment to progress in cancer research is the common scenario of a researcher who has a great idea for treatment, but does not have easy access to cancer tissues to test his or her idea. An open access tissue bank is just the kind of resource needed to help spur research in common and rare cancers alike. It will be a welcomed and very innovative addition to the tools we have as cancer researchers, and will have an immediate positive impact on cancer research now and well into the future. “

Dr. Morton S. Kahlenberg, M.D., F.A.C.S., medical director for Surgical Oncology Associates of South Texas as well as the director of the Baptist Cancer Center, Baptist Health Systems, San Antonio, Texas, called the news, “Outstanding,” and said, “it is very rare for a community practice to create such an invaluable resource and to make it available to such a wide pool of researchers.” Kahlenberg urged doctors and surgeons to become familiar with the tumor bank, saying, “We as cancer care providers, either in an academic practice or in private practice, need to know that this tremendous resource is available, to learn how to use it and to educate our patients about the benefits of donating their tumor tissue.”

The goal of the START tumor bank is to be forever based in San Antonio and will be housed within the facilities of the new START Center for Cancer Care, a new state of the art facility, opening in December of this year. The gifted tumor tissue and the results from research may not benefit the actual donor but will provide an important tool for future research that may benefit future generations with better treatment.

A history of tumor banks and the role they play in the development of new drugs - Tissue preserved in a tissue bank is the single most valuable resource for cancer research, and tumor banks have played pivotal roles in the development of diagnostic tools and therapeutic agents. In fact, many of the new targets or therapies approved for the treatment of patients with cancer were discovered by examining a large number of tumor specimens from a tumor bank, and identifying important proteins, genes, and other markers that actually led to the development or growth of cancer cells.

Medicines such as trastuzumab for the treatment of breast cancer, erlotinib for the treatment of lung and pancreatic cancer, and ceutximab or panitumumab for the treatment of colon cancer required the identification of key proteins in tumor cells that were analyzed from tumor bank specimens.

All normal cells live, grow, and function normally due to the many genes within the cell that control cell behavior. Cancer cells are abnormal because they have abnormalities within some of these genes that lead to abnormal growth and multiplication of these cells to form tumors. Then, these cells spread to other parts of the body which can ultimately lead to loss of life. The answer to how these abnormal genes form and multiply lies in examining existing tumor cells. However, cancer is a complex family of diseases and the genes that are abnormal in one patient’s tumor cells can be completely different from someone with a similar type of cancer. If researchers are to discover new therapies that improve the treatment of patients with cancer, we need to understand all of the different abnormalities, and develop therapies that specifically target the abnormalities that lead to cancer cell growth and spread.

A history of San Antonio and tumor banks - A review of history shows that San Antonio had a major role in the past using a tumor tissue bank that ultimately led to better treatments.

Dr. Dennis Slamon, at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), using tumor tissue from the Breast tumor bank once housed in San Antonio, was able to identify the importance of HER2 in breast cancer. This ultimately led to the discovery and development of two drugs, Herceptin and Lapatinib, that have improved survival worldwide in women with HER2 positive breast cancer.

Ironically, the San Antonio Breast tumor bank went to Houston with Dr. Kent Osbourne when his breast cancer research team left the University of Texas Health Science Center and much of the tumor bank was lost in the Houston floods of 2000.

START has 40 open Phase I trials of some of the most innovative new anticancer agents. Patients wishing to enroll in a trial, or wish to give their consent for a tumor gift to the tumor bank should call (210) 593-5265.