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U-CAN prepares to take the next step

12 April 2016

Six years have passed since U-CAN was tasked with seting up a unique biobank for our most common forms of cancer by the government – but are they ready to make Uppsala a global hub for leading cancer research?

In 2010, Uppsala University was assigned by the Swedish government to start creating an infrastructure which would form the basis of a world-leading biobank within cancer research. Six years later the organisation and tools are in place and the total number of patients involved is approaching 10 000. The Swedish Research Council recently gave U-CAN its highest ranking after evaluating strategic research environments around the country. Does this mean that U‑CAN is ready to take its place as the hub of knowledge for successful cancer research which the government initially envisioned?

‘Our evaluation results were an indication of our strength and confirmed that our strategic direction is both correct and relevant. The time has now arrived for us to turn our material into research and achievements. This is also our obligation to the many, often very ill, cancer patients who do not hesitate to put their energy into helping future patients. A well-organised biobank with clear instructions for use is also something which Uppsala University can use to recruit translational cancer researchers,’ says Tobias Sjöblom, the U-CAN programme co-ordinator.

The term ‘cancer’ covers more than 200 diseases which are all caused by uncontrolled cell division. Advances in science have meant that an increasing number of patients can be cured. Despite this increase in knowledge, however, health services still face great challenges. Even though each cancer expresses itself differently and requires individually tailored care, experience gained from previous treatments can mean the difference between life and death for the next person hit by cancer. This is why U-CAN is now constructing its unique biobank containing blood samples, tissue samples and information from adult patients with nine kinds of cancer.

‘Our vision is that every patient is to have a more accurate, individual diagnosis and prognosis and better treatment. Thanks to our collaboration with a number of regional health services and help from patients, doctors and nurses who have chosen to contribute to our research, we now have a databank which follows the entire care process. Its percentage and quantitative sample size is also of a high international standard,’ says Tobias Sjöblom.

The number of applications for access to the U-CAN material is rapidly increasing and several scientific studies supported by the databank are already in progress. A common feature of all of these projects is that in some way they include clinically active researchers at Uppsala University who have taken part in the sample collection process.
‘Some connection to us is a prerequisite for being granted access. The present heavy demand for patient materials has meant that what U-CAN can offer also helps to strengthen the competitive edge of our researchers. We have recently started marketing our services outside Sweden including the USA with the aim of setting up further international collaboration. A French company has already started studies based on biomaterial which is normally difficult to obtain but which we can provide,’ says Tobias Sjöblom.

In addition to continued data collection, U-CAN is preparing to increase its presence in the field of education within the near future. It is increasing its involvement with the research school NatiOn and this autumn will be starting up the course Future Cancer Care as part of the Uppsala University medical degree programme. Preliminary work will also be carried out for a review of the collaboration currently in progress with other educational institutions participating in U-CAN.
‘We will presently give priority to the nine kinds of cancer we and our regional health service partners are already working on. The aim is to achieve even greater quality for our clinical data. In time, we can increase the number of cancer types. For this to happen, however, the participating researchers and clinics must be prepared to carry out work based upon the U-CAN infrastructure. What we see first and foremost is clear research potential where our primary task is to use existing resources to provide optimum support to that research so that it in turn can contribute to improved cancer care.’

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Magnus Alsne