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Fox Chase Cancer Center Launches New Keystone Program in Head and Neck Cancer

Program is the Fifth Entry in Fox Chase's Keystone Programs for Collaborative Discovery

PHILADELPHIA (August 13, 2009)—Fox Chase Cancer Center has announced the latest of its Keystone Programs for Collaborative Discovery, an innovative team-based research initiative designed to accelerate the pace of medical progress against cancer. The new Keystone Program in Head and Neck Cancer unites clinicians and laboratory scientists to apply knowledge about the underlying genetics of head and neck cancer to the treatment of the disease.

The new program is led by medical oncologist Barbara Burtness, MD, molecular biologist Erica Golemis, PhD, and head and neck surgeon John A. “Drew” Ridge, MD, PhD, who will focus their collective expertise on combating head and neck cancer, a painful and disfiguring disease that includes cancers of the nasal cavity, mouth, throat and voicebox. Each year, more than 45,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer, which only has a survival rate of about 50 percent.

“I congratulate the team leaders for building a cohesive and compelling scientific program in head and neck cancer that makes tremendous use of our existing research and clinical strengths,” says Michael V. Seiden, MD, PhD, president and CEO of Fox Chase Cancer Center. “In particular, the program should be recognized for reaching broadly across the Center to capture the creativity and efforts of an array of constituents who bring a myriad of talents and expertise to the problems of head and neck cancer.”

Fox Chase is already well-known for its head and neck cancer clinical program, which features many of the doctors that have helped define and continue to set the standard of care for head and neck cancer treatment. Their experience in treating head and neck cancer, along with a history of leading and designing clinical trials for each stage and type, will provide added depth to the Keystone Program's already advanced basic research component. This, the researchers believe, will help accelerate the speed in which scientific understand of cancer affects clinical treatment.

The new program will begin by concentrating in two areas that promise to yield rapid therapeutic gains – both of which take advantage of Fox Chase's existing research strengths. The first research track looks at the antibody- and small molecule-based drugs that target the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR), an important driver for head and neck cancers. Some of these drugs are already in clinical use, having emerged as breakthrough, targeted therapies that can improve clinical outcome while inducing few toxic side effects. The Keystone Program seeks to improve patient responsiveness to existing EGFR-targeting antibodies and small molecules, and to design second-generation antibodies with greater potency in the clinic.

The second focus is on the tumor suppressor protein p53, and the role of cellular “checkpoints” in determining the response of patients to treatment. p53 is at the center of a web of proteins that determine whether tumors are readily cured by drugs or radiation, or whether they are intractably resistant.  Keystone investigators are elucidating the action of p53 and related proteins that control cellular resistance to therapies, with work yielding both fundamental scientific insights into control of DNA damage, and yielding biomarkers for improved clinical practice.

Like the four Keystone Programs announced last year, the Keystone Program in Head and Neck Cancer was selected after a competitive external peer-review process. Each designated program  receives at least $5 million in support over five years. The funding comes primarily from new sources, including Fox Chase’s Board of Directors and private philanthropy.

The four existing programs:

  • The Keystone Program in Personalized Risk and Prevention
    • Goal: To discover molecular markers that predict cancer risk and to develop risk reduction strategies tailored to the profile and personal values of the individual
  • The Keystone Program in Epigenetics and Progenitor Cells
    • Goal: To investigate two new views of the origins and maintenance of tumor cells with the aim of creating novel approaches to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention
  • The Keystone Program in Blood Cell Origins and Disease
    • Goal: To identify the genes essential for blood stem cells to give rise to the many distinct blood cell types, a critical step towards understanding blood cell cancers and improving the treatment of patients with leukemias and lymphomas
  • The Keystone Program in Personalized Kidney Cancer Therapy
    • Goal: To investigate the mechanisms of kidney cancer metastasis and to uncover the molecular signals that anticipate how a kidney tumor will respond to therapies in order to optimize therapy for individual patients

In recent years, federal agencies funding biomedical research have recognized the importance of multidisciplinary team-based strategies for solving important disease problems. Funding mechanisms intended to support this kind of research include the Program Project Grants (P01) sponsored by a number of the National Institutes of Health and the Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) supported by the National Cancer Institute, one of the NIH institutes.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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