“Call me an informed and appreciative observer,” Dr. Paul Martin says. If he could turn back the clock, he would love to dig more deeply into the kind of high-powered research human biospecimens allow.
Though he doesn’t directly use biospecimens in his own work, Dr. Martin has a background in clinical oncology and has worked extensively with bone marrow transplants, stem cells, and leukemia. Meanwhile, as the Medical Director of Clinical Research Support at FHCRC, he keeps a watchful eye on biospecimen-based developments in the research world, taking a big-picture view that lets him appreciate how biospecimens shape ongoing research.
Dr. Martin references a recent New England Journal of Medicine editorial by Dr. Jerald Radich that highlights research on chronic myeloid leukemia, a rare disease that nevertheless has broad implications for other, more common diseases. Radich points out how the gap between rare disease drug development and overall cancer treatments is narrowing, thanks in part to the increased availability of human tissue specimens.
The bottom line, Dr. Martin comments, is how the study Radich mentions illustrates the importance of genetic screening for appropriate targets.
Genetic screening can also let researchers get molecular answers without the time-consuming traditional step of using mouse models in the research process.
None of that, Dr. Martin says, would be possible without the breadth and power of dedicated biorepositories. Repositories are helping change oncology greatly, helping researchers share findings more quickly. The biorepositories also give researchers a vital look-out tower from which to spot huge overall patterns—researchers are now beginning to see biochemical patterns underlying cancer mutations across the body, not just the mutations restricted to particular kinds of cancer like colon cancer or uterine cancer
Previously unrecognized common biological mechanisms leading to cancer surprise us all the time, Martin says. Eventually we should be able to treat cancer by biochemical abnormalities, not just by the organs in which the cancer is located.
The large numbers of tissue specimens collected in biorepositories and resources like the NWBioTrust give researchers the power to spot these overall patterns and also help researchers sort the “driver” mutations—those mutations that directly lead to cancer—from “passenger” mutations that are related to cancer without causing it (incidental cell damage, for example). This sorts the genetic faults from the fallout, letting researchers develop better detection methods and more targeted treatments.