Jackson Lab Launches ‘Cancer Avatar’ Project
Jackson Laboratory scientists announced Tuesday that they will use mice as clinical stand-ins or “avatars” for human patients with cancerous tumors to help test and create genetically-tailored cancer treatments.
The program will be developed with Hartford Hospital and the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, where officials announced the joint effort at a Tuesday press conference.
Edison Liu, president and CEO of Jackson Laboratory, said the program could help lead to the development of treatments for previously incurable types of cancer.
“This is a clinical trial to refine both the scientific capabilities and the clinic structures to best use this information for our individual patients,” he said.
The scientists have developed a mouse strain with a weakened immune system that does not reject implanted human tissue. The tumors will grow on the mice and allow scientists to test treatments and therapies before testing them on humans. Jackson Laboratory has partnered with hospitals and cancer centers across the country to develop a bank of these human tumors. The cancers to be researched are those with high risk of relapse and recurrence, including pediatric and colon cancer in adults.
Fernando Ferrer, surgeon-in-chief of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said progress with regard to treating childhood cancer has stalled in the early 21st Century. He said doctors “desperately need new approaches” to treating children with cancers that have been resistant to treatment in the past.
“Our increasing ability to leverage our knowledge of the human genome provides us this way forward — a new strategy, so to speak, to tackle this problem,” he said.
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest event keeping the spotlight on the Maine-based Jackson Laboratory in which Connecticut invested heavily in two years ago. The state borrowed $291 million to help build a genomic research lab in Farmington on the UConn Health Center campus. The laboratory has promised to retain 300 jobs by its 10th year of operation and to help develop a bioscience “ecosystem” in Connecticut.
Liu reiterated that goal at the press conference.
“For me, this is only successful if we accumulate and aggregate talent,” he said. “. . . We have to develop an ecosystem based on a rich network of partnerships. In this day and age, no single institution, no matter how big and how smart, can do it alone.”
This year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is seeking to borrow an additional $200 million to invest in the state’s bioscience sector. He further hopes to bond more than $1.5 billion for UConn over the next 10 years. Malloy said Tuesday’s announcement was evidence that the state’s investments in the bioscience industry were already beginning to show dividends.
“In a shorter period of time than anyone had anticipated, we’re seeing happen what we thought would happen if we made the kinds of investments, and in some cases, just the promise of investments, that we’re currently in the process of making here in Connecticut,” he said.
Liu called Tuesday’s announcement the first step of several, which will hopefully yield groundbreaking advancements in specialized cancer treatment.
“We’re not totally there, but this is a beginning. We’ll start with a step, next thing will be a walk, and the last will be a run. I hope that the next time we meet we will actually announce some really great discoveries coming out of this partnership and to paraphrase something we’ve said before, we will make you proud, Connecticut,” he said.