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National Cancer Institutes National Cancer Institute

The Nation's Investment in Cancer Research

Empowering Cancer Research

Understanding the Biology of Cancer

Although understanding cancer genetics is critically important to our ability to diagnose, treat, and prevent cancer in all of its forms, the biological complexity of cancer extends far beyond its genetic changes, into changes in protein function, structure, and metabolism that lead to cancer progression and metastasis. In order to develop a deeper understanding of these processes, NCI has undertaken several large multi-disciplinary team efforts to overcome obstacles to rapid progress, including developing best practices for biospecimen handling, standardizing proteomic technologies for valid biomarker discovery, defining the tumor microenvironment, and understanding cancer as a complex biological system.

Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research (OBBR): Almost all research into the molecular causes of cancer begins with tissue and DNA samples. In recent years, it has become clear to scientists that biorepositories with high quality bio-specimens and data are needed to enable this work. NCI's OBBR is dedicated to providing leadership for biobanking activities that support all types of cancer research funded by the NCI. This is being done through a comprehensive approach to standard setting, biobanking science, and education with the aim of improving the quality of human biospecimens and biobanking operations nationally and internationally. The NCI Best Practices for Biospecimen Resources, issued in 2007, are a first attempt to standardize critical practices in biospecimen handling and banking in order to increase the meaningfulness and reproducibility of molecular data derived from experiments based on clinical samples from differing sources.

Clinical Proteomic Technologies for Cancer Initiative: The study of the structure and function of proteins and their interactions are major cornerstones of cancer research. Evidence suggests that measurements of even small amounts of cancer-specific proteins and peptides could be reliable indicators of cancer initiation and progression. However, studies that have applied protein measurement technology—including mass spectrometry and affinity-based detection methods—to detect these potential "biomarkers" have not been as successful as anticipated, largely because of significant challenges in the technologies themselves. In order to address this need, NCI launched the Clinical Proteomic Technologies Initiative for Cancer, a cross-institutional and multi-disciplinary team approach that networks multiple research laboratories in 2006 to permit large-scale, real-time exchange and application of existing and newly developed protein measurement technologies, biological resources, and data dissemination; refine, standardize, and optimize technologies, reagents, methods, and analysis platforms that will ensure reliable and reproducible separation, capture, identification, quantification, and validation of protein measurements from complex biological mixtures; evaluate new technological approaches to separate and recognize proteins of significance related to the molecular and cellular events that occur during the process of cancer development.

The Tumor Microenvironment Network (TMEN): Current cancer research reveals that tumors are not masses of cells developing independently, but function like organs composed of many interdependent cell types that contribute to tumor development and metastasis. Tumors and their surrounding cellular environment, collectively known as the stroma, evolve during tumor initiation and progression, and this interaction strongly affects the establishment and treatment of cancer. Evidence is emerging that critical stromal elements of the tumor are attractive targets for cancer prevention, because they primarily influence tumor cells in the early stages of cancer development. The TMEN program was established to expand the understanding of the role of the microenvironment in which a tumor originates and the critical role it plays in tumor initiation and progression. TMEN is a multi-disciplinary network that includes pathologists, cancer biologists, cell biologists, oncologists, and experts in bioengineering and bioinformatics.

The Integrative Cancer Biology Program (ICBP): This effort focuses on the analysis of cancer as a complex biological system. The program brings clinical and basic cancer researchers together with researchers from mathematics, physics, information technology, imaging sciences, and computer science to work on key questions in cancer biology. The integration of experimental biology with mathematical modeling will provide new insights in the biology and new approaches to the management of cancer.

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