Military partnership builds Windber institute's research program

Julie Slavik and Wiliam Yarina, research associates at the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine at Windber, work at lab benches on Sept. 15, 2017.

WINDBER – From humble beginnings in the basement of then-Windber Medical Center, the Chan Soon-Shiong Institute of Molecular Medicine has grown to become a national player in the fight against cancer.

Research fields of tissue banking and bioinformatics were just evolving when the Somerset County program was launched with Department of Defense funding earmarked by the late Rep. John Murtha.

Local programs have grown along with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in such a way that Windber is an integral part of federal research efforts, Windber President and CEO Tom Kurtz said.

“We have a center of excellence that can rival anything in the country here,” Kurtz said.

Bioinformatics: Technology that ‘underpins’ research

Although the Walter Reed Clinical Breast Care Project continues to dominate Windber’s program, the institute no longer depends on line-item appropriations to continue the partnership.

“Tissue repository and bioinformatics – those are the primary contracts,” Kurtz said. “We are part of the budget. It is a more secure type of system, but it also means we have to perform to the standards, so they want to do business with us.”

That has not been a problem. Col. Craig Shriver, principal investigator for the Walter Reed breast cancer research, said Windber has never disappointed.

“As a partner with (the DOD), Windber has always met and exceeded our goals,” Shriver said. “We are very proud of the partnership.”

In fact, Windber’s success has expanded its participation in federal cancer research, bringing the local institute into the new Applied Proteogenomics Organizational Learning and Outcomes network.

Windber is developing an information technology infrastructure for the project and expects to serve as a major repository for tissue samples collected from thousands of cancer patients.

The patients are being enrolled through three APOLLO network partners: the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute and the Veterans Administration.

Shriver, director of the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed, said the APOLLO initiative will analyze an unprecedented number of cancer specimens on seven different molecular platforms: DNA, RNA and expressions of five different proteins.

“This is important because it has never been done before,” Shriver said. “We are developing a unique, one-of-a-kind database on 8,000 unique patients.”

The information gained through the bioinformatics analysis of genetic makeup and protein expressions is expected to lead to many more studies. 

The NCI already has identified a clinical trial that will be part of the ongoing data development.

“The NCI trial is the first to look at cancer from a genetic standpoint instead of location,” Shriver said.

Researchers expect to find similar cancer cells driving tumors in different locations in different patients. If a drug has been approved for the cancer type in one part of the body, it will be given to patients with the same cancer in other organs, he explained.

While the APOLLO studies are expected to last for several years, researchers won’t wait to apply results, Shriver said.

“We will be identifying new targets for therapy and put them into clinical trials as we go,” he said. “We are not going to wait until the APOLLO study ends.”

Kurtz said Windber has become a leader in bioinformatics and tissue banking because leaders did not try to copy other facilities or buy existing network systems.

“We have grown them organically,” Kurtz said. “We have been a leader in the industry in both of those areas. Both the procedures and technology are models for other biorepositories in the country.” 

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

Recommended for you