By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer
As researchers zero in on a potential lung cancer gene, the University of Cincinnati's new Genome Research Institute is gearing up to build upon the discovery.
After all, developing and testing compounds to attack new "targets" identified by genetic research is what the center, which opened last year in Reading, is for.
"That's what we do here. We have a full-blown, drug-lead discovery program," said Dr. David Millhorn, director of the genome institute.
Earlier this week, a major study led by researchers at the University of Cincinnati reported finding a narrow region of genes that could explain why some people are born with a sharply increased risk of developing lung cancer.
Lung cancer kills more than 160,000 Americans a year, more than the next four most common forms of cancer combined. In years to come, many lung cancer sufferers may benefit from new genetic screening tests and better treatments that could result from pinning down a genetic link to the disease.
But UC may benefit even sooner:
New research grants could flow.
UC could gain another edge for recruiting more experts to town.
New business deals with drug companies could emerge.
Any one of these developments could bring millions to UC, and by extension, the local economy.
If the genetic discovery actually leads to a successful lung cancer treatment - a big if at this early stage - UC stands to benefit even more from its share of the intellectual property rights.
How much the local economy benefits will depend on the results of follow-up research and on how well UC plays its cards.
Even though hopes run high, UC officials speak in measured tones.
"This might give us an edge in obtaining new grants, but you're only as good as your next idea," said Dr. Jane Henney, senior vice president and provost for health affairs for the UC Medical Center.
"UC does not have exclusive rights to these findings. Others are going to want to understand and exploit this knowledge as well," she said.
In one clear sign of how excited UC has become, Dr. Marshall Anderson - the principal investigator who coordinated a dozen medical centers in the lung cancer study - just finishing moving last week from UC's main campus to the new genome institute, where he will continue the project.
Even before the lung cancer report was published by the American Journal of Human Genetics, scientists started moving on to the next steps.
The study reported that families with multiple cases of lung cancer share a genetic trait located somewhere among 50 genes on chromosome 6, one of 22 chromosome pairs in the human body. The hunt to narrow that down to one or two genes has begun at UC and at other institutions.
As soon as a gene is spotted, the genome institute will launch into a flurry of activity.
Genes can influence disease by expressing proteins that "turn on" or "turn off" cellular functions. In lung cancer, experts believe the yet-to-be-identified gene plays a role in preventing tumor growth.
The genome institute hopes to identify those crucial proteins, study how they interact with other proteins, then design drugs to control how those proteins function.
"To get this close to a genetic link is a giant step forward," Millhorn said. "When you can focus on a small region like this, it makes things more achievable."
At first, much of the lung cancer follow-up work will be funded by direct federal grants and by the university. Business interest will grow as soon as promising compounds merge.
Should UC find a possible treatment for lung cancer, it could sell the rights or share them with a business partner. For obesity-related research, UC already has a relationship with Procter & Gamble Co.. The company helped pay for some key equipment at the genome institute and it sends researchers to work in Reading side-by-side with UC experts.
More corporate partnerships may be coming, Millhorn said. A publicly traded European drug maker is interested in sending people to the institute. A decision is expected by this fall, he said.
The first lung cancer grant from the National Cancer Institute was $5.9 million. UC officials are hoping to win renewed funding for follow-up work.
But that's just the beginning.
Every time UC's name appears in big studies with institutions like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota or the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, it attracts other researchers, who sometimes can bring millions in grants with them.
UC's outside research funding has exploded in recent years, according to a report issued in April 2004. Funding has jumped from less than $30 million in 1990 to more than $256 million in 2003, including grants going to the affiliated Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Such growth has created several thousand jobs at UC and has a spin-off impact on the local economy as those workers buy local goods and services, officials say.
The lung cancer finding also could help UC be named a "comprehensive cancer center." The National Cancer Institute has designated about 60 such centers nationwide, including ones at Ohio State University and Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University.
"It's all very early," Millhorn said. "But we can say that the technology to pursue this exists here. We couldn't say that before."
The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium is still seeking families with multiple cases of lung cancer to participate in ongoing
research. For information, contact the UC Family Lung Cancer Study at (513) 558-3120, 558-4028 or
558-0559. People also can check the project Web site at www.eh.uc.edu/gelcc or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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