New results from three EORTC-SPECTA research projects are being presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the world’s foremost cancer research organisation. This year’s annual meeting takes place in New Orleans from 8 – 13 April.
SPECTA is a collaborative European platform, under the sponsorship of EORTC, that aims to develop translational1 research projects in cancer, including biomarker discovery. The first two presentations report results from studies investigating the enhanced use of molecular screening to identify ‘best fit’ treatments. Notwithstanding important advances in the personalisation of treatments, many patients are still unable to benefit from them because there is limited knowledge of the molecular characterisation of their cancer and/or poor access to screening platforms.
Rare cancers, defined as having an incidence lower than 6 per 100,000 cases per year, are a particular victim of these factors, mainly because rare cancers are so heterogeneous. To address this, EORTC, in collaboration with EURACAN2, has developed a project within the SPECTA platform to evaluate the molecular situation of rare cancers in Europe. By providing rare cancer patients with access to molecular screening, SPECTA can relate their potentially treatable alterations to possible therapies, and therefore advise clinicians on potential trials or new treatments for their patients.
In the SPECTA Arcagen trial3, researchers analysed the genetic material of tumour samples from patients with rare cancers via biopsies of paraffin-embedded samples or blood. At the cut-off date, molecular alterations that are involved in cancer initiation and proliferation were found in the tumours of 629 patients, of whom 421 were theoretically treatable by an existing therapy. Approved treatment in the right tumour type could be proposed in 58 cases. The researchers will now follow up the patients to see if the treatment was suitable and understand the clinical care for rare cancer in Europe.
Another SPECTA project4 set out to look for clinically relevant molecular alterations in adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer patients. Each year there are around 45,000 new diagnoses of cancer in this age group in Europe; these cancers are also categorised as rare. Despite the great progress that has been made in the understanding the molecular landscape of cancer in children and adults, AYA cancer biology is still poorly understood.
The researchers studied tumours from 48 patients aged between 12 and 29 who had a newly diagnosed high risk sarcoma, or one that had relapsed. They identified treatable molecular variations in 81.2% of them thus, they say, confirming that there is an unmet clinical need among AYA sarcoma patients. Encouragingly, they were also able to identify ways of reducing quality control failures in the tumour samples, thus enabling more to be screened.
The third study5 presented forms part of a European project called IMMUcan, which seeks to enhance understanding of the tumour microenvironment. IMMUcan researchers report on their creation of a single cell RNA sequencing database, a cutting-edge technology to study gene expression at single cell level. While single cell RNA sequencing has been invaluable in helping to understand the cells, molecules, and blood vessels that surround a cancer cell (referred to as the tumour microenvironment), this has generated a massive amount of dispersed information which is not always presented consistently. The new database will bring it all together in one place in a user-friendly format.
Dr Marie Morfouace, an EORTC senior translational research scientist, who presented the SPECTA projects at the meeting, said: “These studies are another step along the road to making precision cancer medicine available for all patients. By understanding the molecular landscape of the tumour and its microenvironment, we can not only advise clinicians on potential targeted therapy for their patients, but we also build scientific hypotheses for the next generation of clinical trials, based on the strong molecular and cellular data generated in those projects.”
1.Translational research aims to convert basic research results into results that will benefit humans directly.
2.EURACAN is the European reference network (ERN) for rare solid tumour cancers in adults. ERNS are virtual patient-centred networks bringing healthcare providers and patient representatives across Europe. Working together, they tackle complex or rare diseases and conditions that require highly specialised care and concentrated knowledge and resources.
The EORTC SPECTA platform is supported by Alliance Healthcare, a member of the AmerisourceBergen group
Arcagen is a collaboration between EORTC and Euracan and is funded by F. Hoffman-La Roche.
The AYA project is supported by the Walgreen Boots Alliance.
The IMMUcan project has received funding from the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking under grant agreement No 821558. This Joint Undertaking receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program and EFPIA.