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International Cancer Conference Focuses on Shared Knowledge

Doctors and researchers from 17 cancer organizations in 11 countries are in Houston for the first annual Sister Institution Conference at The University of Texas Medical Center's MD Anderson Cancer Center. The goal is to share knowledge and technology in an effort to fight the various forms of cancer worldwide.

Dozens of doctors and cancer researchers from Asia, Latin America and Europe are seeing the future of cancer treatment firsthand while attending this conference. Among other things, they have been able to tour MD Anderson Cancer Center's new proton-therapy facility, which is still under construction and will not open until January of next year.

Angel Francisco Campos, an oncologist from Spain, says he is very impressed.

He says cancer therapy has advanced a lot and that MD Anderson is one of the great research centers. He is hoping to establish a formal sister-institution relationship between the Houston hospital and his institution in Madrid, the Spanish Central Defense Department Hospital.

MD Anderson's Vice President for Extramural Programs, Doctor Thomas Brown, says the idea behind the sister-institution program is to promote more such collaboration with other research centers worldwide.

"We have identified through a series of efforts like-minded institutions throughout the world that are the premier educational, research or patient-care facilities in their respective areas, engaged in cancer care and research, who are interested in pursuing a model of patient care that is driven by research," he said.

One enthusiastic participant was Bridgette Ma, professor of Oncology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "I believe in this vision of international collaboration. I think this is the key to solving the mystery of cancer. Cancer is very heterogeneous with different populations and different unique types of cancer and I think the only way to solve the puzzle is to collaborate and share the knowledge," she said.

One reason cancer is such a difficult disease to conquer is that it is really many diseases under one name. Adding to the complexity is the fact that different types of cancer are more prevalent in certain parts of the world than in others. Studying these variations can lead to important clues in developing treatment.

In addition, Dr. Brown notes that these different types of cancer do not always stay in the same place. "In today's world where people travel or emigrate, basically where the world is a smaller place, it is important to understand those population differences," he said.

One place where the study of unique forms of cancer has advanced is India. Professor Ranju Ralhan came to the conference from New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

"In my own laboratory we have identified a lot of candidate bio-molecules, which could serve as molecular markers for early diagnosis of the disease. We are also looking at some of the natural chemo-preventive agents. Some of these agents originate from the original Indian medicine," he said. "So these could be potential grounds for collaboration."

But treatments that work with one type of cancer in India may not always be effective in combating other forms of cancer elsewhere. Likewise, many of the treatments currently used in the United States and elsewhere, such as chemotherapy and radiation, work much better with some patients than with others.

MD Anderson Cancer Center's Dr. Brown says the focus of current research is on identifying the signs that show which patients can most benefit from specific kinds of treatment. "There has been a revolution in the understanding of why normal tissue goes through a number of steps to become cancerous tissue. In understanding those steps we can now, first of all, consider the cancer patient, the person with cancer, on a more individual basis, we can effectively customize both the diagnosis and the treatment. Now, in some cancers this is possible today, to some degree, but in most it is still an aim for the future," he said.

With that in mind, MD Anderson Cancer Center is looking to establish more sister-institution relations and to further its cooperative efforts to fight cancer worldwide.

Among the current collaborations underway are investigations of traditional Chinese medicine with a hospital in Shanghai, a planned clinical trial of head and neck cancer in India and establishment of a tissue bank to study gall bladder cancer in Chile.