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Cancer Center Plays Key Role in Landmark Breast Cancer Study

Roxana Popescu | October 5, 2009

Photo of Dr. Barbara Parker
Dr. Barbara Parker

The Moores UCSD Cancer Center is participating in an unprecedented study involving 150,000 women across California that is expected to change the face of breast cancer prevention, screening and treatment.

The ATHENA Breast Heath Network will track healthy women, breast cancer patients and survivors for several decades at all five UC medical centers. By pooling data and laboratory specimens, connecting with a vast number of patients and comparing prevention, detection and treatment strategies, researchers hope to gain new insights into one of the most prevalent cancers in women.

Initial funding for project comes from a $5.3 million UC Office of the President grant and a $4.8 million grant from the Safeway Foundation.

Dr. Barbara Parker, medical director for oncology services with the Moores UCSD Cancer Center and principal investigator for ATHENA at UCSD, said that the program’s reach across multiple institutions and its specific focus is a novel combination.

“This is the first time that the five UC cancer centers have pooled together their research, their patients, and their resources to focus on one cancer diagnosis,” Parker said. “By putting all sites together, you have a much more powerful study. You are able to evaluate associated signs and symptoms, study tumor tissues, and come up with new insights that could lead to better therapies.”

This effort is comparable to the groundbreaking Framingham heart study launched in 1948, which revolutionized the prevention and treatment of heart disease. By tapping into the UC-system’s network of expertise, patients and resources, the researchers are hoping to achieve much more together than they could have individually.

Photo of Dr. Dennis Carson
Dr. Dennis Carson

“The ATHENA Breast Health Network provides a first-time opportunity for the five UC cancer centers to leverage their collective research strengths in tackling important scientific and clinical questions in breast cancer,” said Dr. Dennis Carson, director of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center.

Parker said working together will also allow for a faster and more efficient transfer of information and resources. For example, UCSD specializes in lifestyle intervention studies for survivors – such as how managing diet and nutrition influence survivorship. In contrast, UC San Francisco specializes in MRI imaging and breast density studies. Eventually, sharing information will help each institution get a better grasp on all dimensions of the disease.

The collaborative aspect caught the eye of the Office of the President and secured the initial grants – a coup given the current economic climate.

“The Office of the President felt this was a very strategic and very visionary project, enough to provide grant funds to support the initial efforts,” Parker said. “This was a significantly important step forward that they responded to by providing the $5 million grant.”

Parker added that more money will be necessary to advance the study.

“Multisite projects looking at thousands of women are always multimillion dollar studies,” she said.

The study’s goals touch upon every aspect of the disease:

• To create common systems to integrate clinical research and care across the UC campuses to advance the science of prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

• To drive innovation across the UC system to deliver more effective and efficient systems for personalized and biologically targeted care, using breast cancer as a prototype. 

• To create a biospecimen repository that has broad racial and ethnic representation. 

• To reduce morbidity and mortality by gaining a molecular understanding of breast cancer and factors that fuel breast cancer risk.

• To improve understanding of who is at risk for what kind of cancer, and whether the risk of that cancer is significant or minimal. 

• To generate the evidence for developing more effective and less toxic treatments and to drive innovation in prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

• To provide tools to change the way patients and providers interact to prevent and manage the disease.

Athena: Smartest goddess of the Greek bunch, born by springing from her father Zeus’s brain

Biospecimens: Samples taken from biopsies and other sources, which researchers can use to study diseases; one of ATHENA’s goals is to create a repository for them.

150,000: Number of California women who will participate in the study

$10 million: Value of combined grants from the University of California and the Safeway Foundation that will start funding the study

Up to 80,000: Number of women who are screened for cancer each year at UC medical centers

2,500: Number of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year at UC medical centers

More than 200,000: Number of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S.

9 months: About how long the program took to be conceptualized and launched.

Sources: American Cancer Society, Dr. Barbara Parker, UC Newsroom

Breast cancer, one of the most common cancers in women, is a devastating and costly disease, striking more than 200,000 women annually and killing more than 40,000 women each year, according to the American Cancer Society. In the United States, more than $20 billion is spent annually screening and treating the disease.

Currently, University of California medical centers screen 80,000 women for breast cancer every year, and they diagnose 2,500 with the disease. That magnitude of subjects makes the UC system particularly well suited for a project of ATHENA’s magnitude.

ATHENA investigators aspire to enable personalized medicine and to drive innovation in breast cancer prevention, screening and treatment by developing common systems, partnering with industry and providing state-of-the-art molecular diagnostics that can analyze a breast cancer tumor and categorize the risk of breast cancer recurrence. They also will create a biospecimen repository that tracks mammograms, biopsy specimens, cancer specimens and serial blood specimens to allow large-scale comparative research to help tailor treatments.

Photo of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center
The Moores UCSD Cancer Center

Women who present for breast cancer screening at the five UC medical centers and their affiliates will be invited to participate in the ATHENA Breast Health Network. All women undergoing screening and treatment will be asked to contribute information about themselves, any risk factors they have, and other related lifestyle behaviors such as diet, tobacco and drug use, environmental factors, gynecological history and family history. Researchers will use that information to refine and improve prevention services.

For women diagnosed with the disease, researchers will compare strategies regarding treatment options, work to develop less toxic treatments, and help patients and survivors stay in touch with doctors through a variety of electronic media, Parker said.

Alleviating human suffering and advancing scientific research is what excites Parker most about this venture.

“Ultimately we all want to impact the suffering and the mortality associated with breast cancer, so that drives me as a physician and a person,” she said. “And anyone in an academic environment gets excited by innovation, by creating new and better ways of delivering patient care.”

An added benefit: As a result of this research, researchers of other types of cancers can use ATHENA as a prototype.

“Some of the tools could then be applied to other cancers as well, in terms of the infrastructures needed to study and make advances in those cases,” Parker said.

ATHENA’s launch coincides with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is October.

The Moores UCSD Cancer Center is one of the nation's 40 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, combining research, clinical care and community outreach to advance the prevention, treatment and cure of cancer. For more information, visit

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