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UC Medical Centers Band Together to Fight Breast Cancer

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Five UC medical centers including Irvine, San Diego, Davis, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have announced plans to join in a massive effort to screen 150,000 women for breast cancer and study their health over at least a decade.

Funding for the endeavor, dubbed the Athena Breast Health Network, will be provided by a $5.3 million UC grant and $4.3 million from the Safeway Foundation. The study will potentially last over a decade and will provide invaluable information to researchers that may help provide breast cancer patients with better and more targeted treatments.

The project has been in development for over a year and will be led from UC’s San Francisco campus, where most of the planning and fundraising for its implementation has taken place.

According to UCSF Executive Director of the project, Kathy Hajoupolous, great effort had gone into developing infrastructure to coordinate the massive effort across the state.

“One of the things that is so innovative about Athena is that it actually brings all the UC medical centers and cancer centers together to work collaboratively on this initiative. As surprising as it sounds, that’s really not the norm,” Hajoupolous said.

The study is a huge undertaking because any initiative involving so many researchers has to be coordinated carefully in order to avoid inconsistencies in data, Hajoupolous said.

“How one medical center or physician collects data and stores it in an electronic format may actually differ significantly from what their neighbor across the state does,” Haioupolous said.

Despite the possible clerical complications which could arise from collaboration, the massive scale of the study has the possibility to produce impressive results. The number of subjects involved will provide researchers with a greater likelihood of achieving statistically significant results.

“By creating this very large data and biospecimen repository across all the UC’s we’ll have the power of a much larger patient population and we’ll be able to understand what impacts the development of breast cancer,” Hajoupolous said.

Hajoupolous compared the Athena Project to the commonly cited 1948 Framingham heart disease study, which has lead to a dramatically improved understanding of the causes of heart disease.

The Athena study will differ from many former studies on cancer, in which only factors like behavior, diet, race and lifestyle were considered.

Professor of Radiology at the UC Irvine Chao Cancer Center in Orange and one of the researchers involved in the study, Dr. Stephen Feig, said that researchers in the Athena study will look for specific molecular genetic markers and how they relate to the development of breast cancer in individuals.

The ultimate goal, according to Feig, is to get “a more tailored assessment of a patient’s management of breast cancer.” Specifically, better decisions from doctors about treatment and more targeted treatment methods for individuals could be derived from information that studies like Athena could provide.

“In many aspects patients have to be treated differently from one another,” Feig said.

According to Hajoupolous, project leaders hope to expand the project over time. “Once we develop the infrastructure for the study and are working well as a group, we will then expand to other community [health care] providers,” Haioupolous said.

Though the study was announced this month, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the first group of women won’t enroll in the study until the middle of next year.

The study is especially relevant given the prevalence of breast cancer compared to other diseases, especially in young women. According to the American Cancer Society, women are several times more likely to develop breast cancer than any other type — approximately one out of eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

The study takes its name from the mythological Greek god, Athena. The name was chosen by Project Director Dr. Laura Esserman.

“It came to [Esserman] that Athena was the goddess of war and wisdom,” Hajoupolous said, “and that’s what it’s going to take to really revolutionize breast cancer treatment.”