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Frederick cancer labs to refocus, prioritize on specific protein

Frederick News-Post (MD)


Aug. 07--As many as 70 employees and $10 million a year are expected to be redirected at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research by this fall.

The National Cancer Institute is moving the resources from other projects to target a particularly pernicious protein that has so far proved resistant to cancer treatment.

The focus on the Ras protein came out of discussions between Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the institute, and the laboratory's advisory committee. Taking on the initiative at FNLCR was green-lighted in late June during a meeting between the National Cancer Advisory Board and the NCI's Board of Scientific Advisors.

Ras mutations are found in about a third of human cancers, according to Dr. Dave Heimbrook, chief executive officer of SAIC-Frederick, which provides technical support and operations for the Frederick lab. The mutations are also found in up to 95 percent of all pancreatic cancers.

About 70 scientists who had been working in the FNLCR's Advanced Technology Program, which has worked on genomics, will be reassigned to the Ras task, Heimbrook said, adding that the program will receive a new title. About 1,600 scientists work at the Frederick lab, located at Fort Detrick and in the new Advanced Technology Research Facility off Progress Drive. The 330,000-square-foot lab was completed last year.

The lab will be the hub of the work, with academia, private labs and pharmaceutical companies serving as spokes to form a virtual network for research, Heimbrook said. He sees the Ras program as a magnet to attract outside researchers for collaborative efforts, he said.

Dr. Frank McCormick, director of the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco, will spearhead the Ras efforts as a project leader and consultant. McCormick, who earned his doctorate In biochemistry from the University of Cambridge in 1975, said he will step down as director at the UCSF center, but continue to work there and spend a week each month in Frederick at the FNLCR.

The first priority will be to focus on drugs to eradicate KRAS cancers, the most common form of the Ras family of mutations, McCormick said. Other priorities focus on drugs targeting attacks in various ways, looking at how to energize and redirect immunity to attack cancer cells and RNA interference, he said.

"Our model will be to work with the best and brightest in the community," McCormick said in a phone interview Tuesday. McCormick will be at the Frederick lab again Aug.19, he said.

Dr. Steven Rosen, Frederick National Labs Advisory Committee member and director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, said Ras is a "critical signalizing molecule" in cancers and is "felt to be one of the more potentially more important targets of cancer therapy."

Scientists have know for years that Ras is a critical molecule, Rosen said Tuesday.

"By putting a team of investigators targeted on this issue, something meaningful can emerge," he said.

Follow Courtney Mabeus on Twitter: @courtmabeus.


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