Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project Aims to Accelerate Discoveries
It's a question with limitless possibilities. Almost anything can come after "What if?"
What if you had kept taking piano lessons as a kid?
What if your jump shot was as good as Stephen Curry's?
What if cancer researchers had a way to accelerate their discoveries?
What if you, as a prostate cancer patient, could contribute to those researchers' efforts?
Well, in the case of the last two questions, you don't have to wonder "What if?"
Using the power of large numbers, one organization is on a mission to help everyone better understand cancer and further shape its treatment. Count Me In is leveraging cancer patients' medical records, tumor samples and even personal experiences to create data that researchers, doctors and cancer sufferers can use to their various ends.
'Our goal is to provide an avenue for more patients' voices to be at the forefront of this research.'
First envisioned in 2013 and established as a nonprofit organization in 2018, Count Me In is primarily composed of three well-known institutions: the Emerson Collective, a social-change organization based in California; the Broad Institute, a nonprofit biomedical research institute affiliated with MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. In addition, a constellation of hospitals, doctors and researchers contribute in ways great and small.
With the help of more than 8,500 patients who have joined, Count Me In's teams have sliced, diced, parsed and compiled mounds of useful data. At present, it has generated more than 10 releases of data across its projects, which has been used by more than 60 scientists, cited more than 50 times in scientific publications, helped establish clinical trials and led to new discoveries.
A prostate-cancer-specific angle
One offshoot of Count Me In is the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project (MPCP), whose goal is to focus cutting-edge genomic science on people living with metastatic prostate cancer—prostate cancer that has spread beyond the prostate gland. The project is led by Eliezer Van Allen, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School whose research focuses on computational cancer genomics, the application of new molecular profiling technologies to advance precision cancer medicine, and studying resistance to cancer therapeutics.
While new discoveries, treatments and technologies are among the goals of the MPCP and its people, it's the human factor that drives the project's principals to achieve more.
"The primary goal of this project, as part of the Count Me In general mission, is to empower cancer patients to be able to participate in research regardless of where they live or at which hospital/clinical setting they are cared for," said Van Allen, who credits his experience helping create Camp Kesem, a nationwide camp network for kids whose parents have or had cancer, with directing him toward cancer medicine. "Historically, the only way for patients to join such efforts required them to be cared for at a hospital affiliated with a major research program—typically less than 15 percent of cancer patients—and we sought to change the model entirely through a patient-centered strategy."
Delving deeper into prostate cancer makes sense. One in 8 men will be diagnosed with the disease at some point, and 1 in 41 men will die of it. Most who succumb to the disease have metastatic prostate cancer, which is why the MPCP puts its focus there.
"This is the form of cancer that can be lethal, and thus it is critical that we better understand this form of the disease to contribute to new treatments," Van Allen said in an email.
With approximately 34,100 men expected to die of prostate cancer in 2021, finding new treatments could save a lot of lives.
Strength in numbers
People currently battling prostate cancer or those who had it in the past are encouraged to take part in the Metastatic Prostate Cancer Project. Additionally, any individual in the United States or Canada living with or who has ever had cancer can take part in the larger Count Me In research by joining and having their de-identified data added to the mix. Other CMI projects address breast cancer, esophageal and stomach cancer, angiosarcoma, osteosarcoma and brain tumors.
No extra visits to the doctor. No long drives to a facility engaged in specific research. No entrance requirements. They want everyone.
So why the emphasis on patients?
"Our goal is to provide an avenue for more patients' voices to be at the forefront of this research," Van Allen said. "Indeed, we have already found that patient-provided information can guide new insights that would have not been possible without partnering with patients on this type of research program from day one."
Most who succumb to the disease have metastatic prostate cancer, which is why the MPCP puts its focus there.
Patients who join the project become part of a growing community and receive quarterly updates on scientific progress. Van Allen said the project is also planning initiatives to enable the genomic return of results to participating patients in the future. Currently, the project can't return individual results of genetic testing to patients who provide samples because the patients are anonymous and the data is aggregated for research purposes.
The MPCP certainly isn't the first project to explore metastatic prostate cancer and seek answers, but it is taking a new road there. And it is drawing inspiration from other discoveries.
"One recent example is the discovery that certain men with metastatic prostate cancer have genomic properties that may make their tumors sensitive to a class of drugs called PARP inhibitors recently pioneered in breast and prostate cancer," Van Allen said. "Based on this discovery, we believe that larger and more representative data sets from MPCP patients will accelerate even more discoveries going forward."