A national effort to understand the molecular basis of numerous cancers by analyzing proteins and genes will benefit from greater diversity in patient samples through a new agreement with the Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically Black medical school in Atlanta. 

Director of Frederick National Laboratory Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., discusses the newly awarded subcontract to Morehouse School of Medicine as part of the Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium with James Lillard, Ph.D., senior associate dean at MSM, during AACR23.

MSM joins the National Cancer Institute’s Clinical Proteomic Tumor Analysis Consortium (CPTAC) facilitated by the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, as the consortium seeks to increase representation of biospecimens from underserved minority populations, particularly from Black patients.  

“It is critical to have diversity in the biospecimens we prospectively collect for CPTAC,” said Mathangi Thiagarajan, whose team manages 30 domestic and international sites that provide biospecimens for this program.  

CPTAC combines the technologies of genomics and proteomics – proteogenomics – to uncover new insights into cancer. It was launched in 2011 with breast, ovarian. and colorectal cancer and has grown to 23 different tumor types. In analyzing the proteins along with the genes, Thiagarajan said, one technology is filling in the gaps of the other.  

“Proteins are the targets of most anticancer drugs and therapies; therefore, it is critical to understand the proteome,” Thiagarajan said.  

CPTAC has agreements with clinical sites around the world to provide biospecimen samples from patients with an informed consent following appropriate ethical, legal and regulatory compliance. The samples must be treatment naïve, meaning the patient has not yet undergone chemotherapy or radiation and must meet the technical requirements per the CPTAC collection protocol. The tissue source sites enter clinical data directly into a web-based portal called Comprehensive Data Resource (CDR) developed and managed by the CPTAC informatics team. 

The samples are received and processed at a central facility, which extracts DNA, RNA, and proteins before shipping the samples  to genomic and proteomic characterization laboratories for analysis. 

Analysis teams comprised of scientists, informaticians, and clinicians in the consortium receive the data made available through NCI’s genomic and proteomic Data Commons. In addition, histopathology and radiology images collected from the program are made available through NCI’s Imaging Data Commons

“One of the program’s focuses for 2023 is to increase diversity in all our cohorts,” Thiagarajan said. MSMs inclusion as a partner in the CPTAC biospecimen initiative signifies a pivotal step forward in the effort to bolster the representation of cases from the Black community within cancer research. This collaboration exemplifies a commitment to advancing inclusivity and diversity in the field of biomedical research, as it aligns with the imperative to ensure that scientific studies are more representative of the entire population.” 

James Lillard, Ph.D., senior associate dean at MSM, has published on the topic of racial disparities in Black men with cancer. He says the disparities in outcome may, in part, be due to differences in the biology of the disease between racial and ethnic groups. 

The proteomic studies of samples from Black patients will provide important insights into their cancer biology, he said.  

“Through CPTAC, MSM researchers and collaborators will be able to examine the differences in protein expression between Black men and men of other races with similar cancer,” Lillard said. “Such insights could lead to the development of more effective, personalized treatment strategies for this population ultimately driving progress toward more equitable and effective healthcare solutions.” 

FNL CPTAC teams do more than provide samples and data. They are part of disease working groups that include clinicians and oncologists that use the data and contribute to discussions and publications that result from the analysis. 

“We’ve built a biospecimen platform to bring them all together so they can contribute to the science and human health,” Thiagarajan said. “They feel included and valued in the program, and I would say that is one of the keys to its success.” 

Lillard said participation in CPTAC will improve the quality and impact of the research conducted at MSM and expose faculty to cancer research experts, helping to attract the best and brightest faculty and students.

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