U-CAN: Earlier detection of cancer – the role of biobanks

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In recent decades, it has become possible to cure increasing numbers of cancer patients. However, treatment for cancer is complicated by the fact that the disease can manifest itself in very different ways in different patients. This make it important to design future treatments based on each individual patient’s cancer, so that each individual patient receives a better and more personalised diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. For a person with cancer, experience from previous treatments can be the difference between life and death.

We all differ, tumours differ, cancer cells in tumours differ. However, even if every cancer is unique and requires personalised care, experience from previous treatments can be crucial for the survival of the individual patient. The single most powerful means of reducing cancer mortality is probably to develop indicators – biomarkers – that enable the early detection and surgical remedy of cancer before symptoms manifest and the disease spreads. Uppsala University has a unique combination of resources and expertise to tackle this unsolved problem systematically, using new methods of analysis.

The main difficulty in developing biomarkers is that they need to be sufficiently specific for the particular type of cancer you are looking for. Consequently, this kind of study needs to encompass many different types of tumours. This in turn presupposes collecting large amounts of patient data and biological samples of known, high quality.

With a view to identifying methods for earlier diagnosis and more personalised treatment, the research programme U-CAN has collected data and created a biobank of blood and tissue samples from adult patients with cancer. All these data and samples are then made available to researchers and companies that want to develop diagnoses and treatments for tumour diseases.

Thanks to close cooperation with healthcare services and the assistance of patients, doctors, nurses and laboratory staff, U-CAN has built up a databank of the highest international standard that follows the entire care process. Since it started in 2010, samples have been collected before, during and after treatment from 17,000 cancer patients with nine different cancer diagnoses, which have been used in more than 60 research projects.

The researchers at U-CAN seek to analyse the samples collected and turn them into research findings that will benefit as many cancer patients as possible. One particularly interesting area involves blood sample analyses for early detection of cancer, a research issue that requires large groups of material of the high quality available in U-CAN. Extensive preparations have been made to ensure success and now a major study of three types of tumours is beginning, aimed at finding suitable biomarkers. The study is scalable and the idea is to extend it to more types of tumours and methods of analysis in the future.

“Clinically usable biomarkers that enable the early detection of cancer before symptoms manifest and the disease spreads may be the single most powerful means of reducing cancer mortality.”
Tobias Sjöblom, Professor of Tumour Genetics, Programme Coordinator at U-CAN