Posted: March 22, 2011

TCGA Expands Research Horizons

Image: Dr. Rajiv Dhir

Rajiv Dhir, M.D.

Member, Division of Anatomic Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine

Cancer is an enigma that is a central focus of clinical and research initiatives at the University of Pittsburgh and the 14 hospitals and 35 cancer care centers of the University of Pittsburgh Health Systems.  Researchers wrestle with questions related to how cancers develop, how to diagnose them early, how to stratify their behavior and last, but probably most important, how to identify new and better, ways to fight cancer.   The clinicians are engaged with how to cure patients; when that is not possible, how to alleviate pain and suffering and provide the highest possible quality of life.

The highest quality tissue and biological samples provide the key basic ingredient needed to investigate cancer.   Collection of high quality research samples has been a major mission our Institution for the past 15 years; however, The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) has provided the critical glue and support that has brought a variety of different facets of cancer research together in our environment in Pittsburgh. 

TCGA set rigorous standards for tissue collection and provided the impetus to collect blood normal to complement tissue normal.  Involvement with this program provided the spark that led us to expand our tissue accrual process to our larger community hospitals.  This expansion provides access to an additional 1000 tumor resections annually. 

TCGA was also a significant reason for helping initiate a major Informatics project, with funding from the senior Vice Chancellor, Health Sciences.  Because TCGA requires integration across many departments, we needed to find more efficient ways of sharing information.  This new informatics project aims to build an inventory and data management system in-house that ties our various electronic data sources together.  The timing was coincidentally perfect; a system-wide electronic medical records (EMR) is being implemented.  This system has already started making a difference by streamlining tissue and data management. 

TCGA helps the institution by providing monetary support to sustain biological specimen collection and data aggregation.  However, the more-important institutional return is the data being generated on these specimens.  The data being generated by TCGA is viewed as a driver for translational initiatives and projects institutionally and in collaboration with extra-institutional partners.  The perceived significance of this flow of information has resulted in significant institutional interest and investment. 

The TCGA data are being viewed as the spark to jump-start the next wave of research and development.  The University of Pittsburgh is considering significant investment in human capital by recruiting individuals who can evaluate the data for basic/ translational research and application. We strongly believe that TCGA might well turn out to be one of the significant initiatives that helps turn the tide in the battle against cancer.