The President of the BBVA Foundation, Francisco González, José Baselga, Chief of Hematology/Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center (MGHCC), and Andrés de Kelety, Managing Director at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) in Barcelona, yesterday, November 15, 2011, signed the agreement creating the BBVA Foundation Tumor Biomarkers Research Program. Also attending the event was the Foundation’s Director, Mr. Rafael Pardo.
Under the terms of this agreement, the BBVA Foundation will fund the collaborative efforts of MGHCC and VHIO to develop personalized therapies for cancer patients through biomarker research. The program will proceed along two main lines – new drug discovery and the improvement or optimized use of existing pharmaceutical therapies – with the common goals of securing more effective, individually tailored treatments and of accelerating their translation to the clinic, and thereby patient care.
In the oncology field, biomarkers are biological characteristics of malignant cells that are measurable in tumor tissue and, at times, in blood. Biomarkers can measure alterations of the genome, of the proteins encoded by the genome and at times enzymes or metabolites. The information they give can be prognostic – how the disease is likely to evolve – or predictive – how it may respond to a given treatment. Studies in this case will initially center on colorectal, breast and lung cancer, with the intention of expanding into other types like melanomas, lymphomas or prostate cancer.
The BBVA Foundation will provide 2.5 million euros funding over the next five years to facilitate synergies between researchers at MGHCC and VHIO under the direction of doctors José Baselga and Daniel Haber (MGHCC) and Josep Tabernero (VHIO). This sum may be revised upward during the life of the program in the light of emerging research needs and according to the economic circumstances of the time.
The grant will be split equally between the two centers, with MGHCC matching the BBVA Foundation’s contribution. Both institutions are committed to sharing and exchanging findings and will place their biomarker platforms in genomics, proteomics and molecular pathology at the disposal of the new program.
The agreement also includes an express undertaking by the parties to share their results with the rest of the scientific community and, by this means, hasten their availability to cancer patients.
“We are grateful as well as strongly impressed that the BBVA Foundation is not only maintaining but enlarging its support for this program, along with its broader commitment to research in general, and cancer research in particular, at a time of economic difficulties,” declared Dr. Baselga.
The BBVA Foundation President was quick to concur, while adding: “Spain cannot afford to slip behind in an area where it has already attained a position of some prominence, and where research results can drive tangible improvements in the diagnostic and therapeutic options available to patients.”
In today’s climate of austerity, Francisco González stressed the need to ”preserve the core elements of an economy like Spain’s which has no other route map but knowledge and innovation.” In the case of the BBVA Foundation, this translates as “a multipronged program of support for research and the creation of knowledge-driven public goods, with a focus on areas, like health and environmental conservation, in the foreground of citizens’ preferences and expectations.” On the topic of the BBVA Foundation Tumor Biomarkers Research Program, he explained that “the international cooperation model underlying this program is not a novelty for the BBVA Foundation, but rather reflects our conviction that the best research is currently being done in cross-border networks involving hubs of excellence.”
The “signature” of cancer
Biomarkers are a mainstay of today’s cancer research. Each tumor carries specific alterations that can be detected through molecular testing. Biomarkers are obtained by checking this information against the patient’s own genetic traits to determine the “signature” or way the tumor manifests in his or her body. It is this identification that opens the door to targeted therapies.
The BBVA Foundation Tumor Biomarker Research Program pursues therapies tailored not only to the type of cancer but also the specific molecular characteristics of each patient’s tumor. Among its objectives are the design of protocols for clinical trials that allow patients to benefit from newly discovered drugs earlier in the disease process, and the development of tools to measure individual patient’s responses to targeted cancer drugs.
The idea is to have clinical trials where patients are recruited not for their type of tumor, as normally occurs, but for the type of molecular or genetic alteration linked to the tumor they are suffering.
Baselga is convinced that both new drug discovery and the optimization of existing treatments require “a close partnership with biotech and pharmaceutical companies in order to improve clinical trials and expedite development of new targeted drugs, so patients get the benefits as quickly as possible.”