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    BU, Johnson & Johnson team up to seek earlier detection of lung cancer

    Boston University President Robert Brown speaks to a Boston Globe reporter about how BU is coping with the long string of tragedies in the past year, including the marathon victim and most recently a student who died in a fire this weekend at his office at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts April 29, 2013. Boston Globe Photo by Jessica Rinaldi
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File
    Boston University President Robert A. Brown.

    Despite the remarkable progress that medicine has made treating some varieties of cancer, one common form remains nearly as deadly as it was four decades ago: lung cancer.

    The five-year survival rate is 17.8 percent today, according to medical experts, not much better than it was in 1977, when it was 13 percent. The disease is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women in the United States, killing about 154,000 people each year, more than those who die from breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer combined.

    On Wednesday, Boston University and the health care giant Johnson & Johnson announced a five-year collaboration that they hope will change that.

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    The New Jersey company will fund a Johnson & Johnson Innovation Lung Cancer Center on the university’s medical campus. BU researchers will work closely with scientists from the company to develop biomarker-based early-screening tests for lung cancer, as well as medicines to arrest or eradicate the disease in its earliest stages.

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    The collaboration was unveiled at the annual BIO International Convention at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center at a press conference attended by BU president Robert A. Brown and officials from the university and Johnson & Johnson. The company, which is based in New Brunswick, declined to disclose any financial terms.

    Brown said the alliance was first discussed about three months ago and came together quickly because of an “overwhelming sense of the progress we can make” together.

    As part of the collaboration, Dr. Avrum Spira, a professor of medicine, pathology, and bioinformatics at BU, has joined Johnson & Johnson Innovation LLC as global head of its lung cancer initiative and will head the new center.

    Lung cancer remains overwhelmingly deadly because it is typically diagnosed late — in stage 4 — “when there’s very little we can do to cure the disease,” Spira said.

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    The collaboration plans to expand on two lung cancer research projects already underway. One involves studying military veterans to see who is at highest risk for developing lung cancer using different biomarkers.

    The other seeks to develop a “precancer genome atlas” to characterize the earliest cellular and molecular changes in the airway and lung that lead to invasive lung cancer.

    Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com