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STAT | Kendall Squared

Breast cancer patients encouraged to share genetic data in new project

Cancer patients' DNA holds a trove of valuable information, but too often that data remain untapped. Now, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard are seeking to mine that data from patients around the country to tease out a better understanding of one particular cancer, and how to improve its treatment.

The Metastatic Breast Cancer Project — a collaboration of the Broad, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Harvard Medical School — was launched this month. The project asks individuals who have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer to contribute their stored tumor tissue, medical records, and saliva samples to a national database.


Scientists can then compare the healthy genetic sequence from saliva to the cancerous genetic sequence from the tumor to understand the changes that drive cancer.

Genetics could help improve treatment, too. One of the first studies will look at so-called exceptional responders, patients who see dramatic results from treatments, to determine how their genes affected the outcomes. That could help researchers tailor drugs.

The team is taking its message to patients via social media and advocacy channels, inviting them to get involved. That makes it one of the few cancer studies that allow patients to directly opt in, representatives of the Broad said.

In its first weeks, the project has enlisted more than 500 participants, and researchers hope to enroll 5,000 patients over the next year. The approach, said the lead investigator, Dr. Nikhil Wagle, will democratize current cancer studies. Patients can participate regardless of geography and of the hospital where they sought treatment.

Interested patients can fill out a survey online at Importantly, the anonymized data will be available to other cancer researchers.

"The overwhelming majority of [patients] are so enthusiastic about the fact that there is a spotlight being shone directly on metastatic breast cancer research," said Corrie Painter, associate director of operations at the Broad. "It's something they've been wanting."


Beth Caldwell, a 39-year-old attorney in Seattle who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer last year, was one of those patients who wanted to help but could not find an avenue. Caldwell's cancer is of a rare form that left her ineligible for many clinical trials, she said.

Caldwell learned about the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project through Twitter and has submitted her samples. Though the research may not benefit her directly, she wanted to participate to help other patients, as well as future generations. "You meet other people with metastatic breast cancer, and you see that they're just wonderful, delightful people," she said. "I want them to live."

You are here — in a photo-worthy place

The plaza in front of the Marriott in Kendall Square hosts markets, concerts, sunbathers, and a daily stream of commuter foot traffic. Now, it will get its own landmark. Boston Properties plans to install a 7-foot-tall "KSq" sculpture, furthering the square's drive to create a neighborhood identity.

The Cambridge Redevelopment Authority board approved the sculpture in September.

Renderings show an orange or magenta sculpture cornering the plaza's central grassy area. Boston Properties told the board that it would serve as an identifying anchor and a backdrop for photos.

A rendering shows a potential design for the sculpture Boston Properties is planning for Kendall Square as part of an effort to give the area more of a sense of place.Cambridge Redevelopment Authority

The idea is part of wider branding efforts in Kendall Square that aim to give the area a unified sense of place.

There's no word yet on when the sculpture will be installed — but in the meantime, visitors, get your selfie sticks ready.


Leaving the nest for a life in Cambridge

Last week, Isis Pharmaceuticals Inc., a drug maker based near San Diego, cut the ribbon on its new offshoot in Kendall Square. But the subsidiary, Akcea Therapeutics, won't be a clone of the original. Instead, Isis and Akcea plan to specialize in different stages of getting a drug to market.

Isis, which develops drugs targeting RNA, wants to focus on research while letting Akcea guide drugs through clinical trials, regulatory approval, and commercialization.

"The way we think about getting the drugs to the patients is very different than their focus on the science," said Akcea CEO Paula Soteropoulos.

Paula Soteropoulos is the chief executive of Akcea Therapeutics, California-based Isis’s new offshoot in Cambridge.Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

Kendall Square was a natural choice for the subsidiary, Soteropoulos said. "This area's so rich with talent, it makes sense."

Akcea could in the future offer its regulatory and marketing services to other companies, in addition to Isis, Soteropoulos said. But at the outset, the Isis drugs passed to Akcea represent a "tremendous birthright" for the new company, Isis chief operating officer Lynne Parshall said at the event last week.

One of the drugs, volanesorsen, is in a Phase 3 trial for patients with familial chylomicronemia syndrome, a rare genetic disease; the companies hope to have it on the market by early 2018.

Soteropoulos said she traveled to San Diego a fair amount at the beginning of the year to help get Akcea off the ground but the cross-country trips have abated. Come February, though, it might not be a bad place to have to go for a business trip.


Andrew Joseph can be reached at andrew.joseph Follow him on Twitter @DrewQJoseph. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.