In a Va. Lab, Forging Links To Speed Cancer Advances

GMU, With Ties to Italy, Aims to Be a Biotech Force

Researchers at George Mason University in Va. are working with Italian cancer specialists to study tumor samples in an effort to understand how cancer spreads and how to try to stop it. Video by Michael Laris/The Washington Post, Edited by Jonathan Forsythe & Jacqueline Refo/
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The tiny pieces of tumor, cut from 51 Italian cancer patients, arrived at a suburban Washington laboratory in boxes packed with dry ice.

Doctors at the University of Padua had frozen 51 nubs of tissue taken during colon cancer surgeries and another 51 slices from the patients' livers, where the disease had spread.

A courier then transported the 102 tubes to a white brick building in a half-built technology park 4,300 miles away in Prince William County, where researchers from George Mason University began tearing through the cells to learn how cancer grows and travels in the body. Discoveries from the Italian tumors are being used to develop a clinical trial for patients at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

For Virginia officials, who have spent $5 million luring talent from Bethesda's National Institutes of Health and paying for the work, the goal also is to make the region west of the Potomac River a national biotech player.

The effort is part of an aggressive strategy by two former U.S. government researchers, a group of Fairfax County doctors, and state and university officials, who have quietly pieced together a network they hope will allow them to leapfrog the bureaucracies of better-known research institutions to speed discoveries and get personalized treatment to patients quickly.

"The blank slate we were given didn't exist anywhere else," said Lance Liotta, former chief of pathology at the National Cancer Institute, who along with Emanuel Petricoin, a former senior researcher at the Food and Drug Administration, and an eight-person research group was recruited to George Mason in 2005.

Their approach has been to build tools and relationships to understand what drives disease, concentrating on early cancer detection and late-stage treatment, but also touching on everything from schizophrenia to the search for human growth hormone in the urine of baseball players.

Their partners have given them access to the human tissue and serum crucial to their research. Advances are channeled back to patients here and in Italy.

"Cancer is a global problem," said Claudio Belluco, a partner and surgeon at the National Cancer Institute in Aviano, Italy. "You have to fight it with the most advanced technology, facilities and brains you have in the world."

Liotta and Petricoin speak about their work with the glee of puzzle solvers and the gravity of those facing down diseases that kill millions.

"Lance and I are hellbent. Nothing is going to stop us," Petricoin said. "We're going to do whatever we have to do to realize not just our vision but the growing vision of personalized therapy."

They start with the central premise that each person's cancer is different. That's because the proteins that do the work of a cell, which grow out of control in a cancer, follow different paths to reach their destinations.

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