Years of blood and tissue samples helps DoD make major contribution to Cancer Moonshot
Army Col. Craig Shriver is director of the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
FOr more than 25 years, the Department of Defense has collected and stored blood serum from all of its members, and the tissues of many. Those millions of samples are being stored at the Department of Defense Serum Repository in Silver Spring, Maryland, along with a tumor bio-repository run by the Murtha Cancer Center.
These efforts are paying off for the national Cancer Moonshot, the White House-led effort to make 10 years of progress against cancer in just five years by bringing together resources from the government and private sectors.
“Our leadership has been working to come up with actionable items to address the Cancer Moonshot’s overall mission of advancing progress against the disease,” said Army Col. Craig Shriver, director of the Murtha Cancer Center, the DoD’s lead cancer research and treatment facility. “The military has some unique resources for this fight.”
Shriver pointed to two items in particular that have given the military a leg up in gathering all the samples now being examined with new technologies: the groundbreaking longitudinal study to revolutionize precision oncology; and the Applied Proteogenomics OrganizationaL Learning and Outcomes Consortium, better known as APOLLO, a three-pronged, collaborative effort from the DoD, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cancer Institute to look at cancers at the molecular level. Both programs are using the robust storage capacity only the military has.
“The Department of Defense Serum Repository is a biobank of blood serum that has been drawn from all active duty members since 1989 on a regular basis throughout their careers,” said Shriver. “It was used initially for infectious disease studies, but it’s become […] a great opportunity to study cancer.”
The MHS has more than just a passing interest in the success of this effort. More than 1,000 active-duty military service members are diagnosed with cancer each year; additional numbers of retirees and family members are also affected.
“We have a long-standing significant research investment in in this area,” said Dr. David Smith, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Health Readiness Policy and Oversight. “That investment in effort also means we have a significant cancer registry, one of the best in the world, of samples, tissues, etc., supported by our electronic health records helping us match data.”
The samples drawn, often for non-cancer related reasons years before, allow researchers to see a more complete picture of what might have happened at the molecular level to a person who ultimately developed the disease. Shriver said they now can look at all the proteins indicating cancer that might have developed leading up to the diagnosis.
“When you do that, you’re able to discover new biomarkers or things presenting in the serum ahead of time that now become a diagnostic aid,” said Shriver. “We’re talking about 62 million serums from more than 10 million active-duty members who served over the last 26 years. It’s a phenomenal resource.”
Shriver said saving this large of a set of samples is just not done in the civilian world. While many people go to their doctors for regular check-ups and do have blood and tissue samples taken, usually those samples are tested for specific items and then discarded. Due to the militaries unique mission sets and needs, it has kept serum specimens on all service members for decades. Now, not only do researchers have the years of samples to examine, they have the new technologies and techniques, such as genome sequencers and massive protein analysis platforms, to look at those samples in ways that couldn’t have been imagined when they were first drawn.
Shriver is clear this Moonshot doesn’t mean there will be cures for all cancers in five years; just that the research progress in those five years should be twice what it was before the Cancer Moonshot was announced at the State of the Union address in January 2016.
“We have just started putting some samples through the pipeline, so we don’t have any results yet,” said Shriver. “But the information is going to be shared with the public so that all researchers can have access to what will be highly technical data. Then they can use novel algorithms to identify new associations.”
Shriver and Smith added none of this could happen without the larger, strategic Cancer Moonshot effort.
“A major thrust of this effort, is to better leverage knowledge and expertise across government and the private sector,” said Smith. “When we combine all the information gathered, we want to see what we can glean from the data and match it to other agencies’ information.”
“Usually, it takes a couple of years just to get a grant to start research, and that’s if it’s something more tangible, not like the discovery science we’ll be doing,” said Shriver. “None of these were being done before the announcement of the Cancer Moonshot.”