IU aims to find cures for three forms of cancer, help prevent or slow other diseases

Two years after announcing a bold goal to cure at least one cancer and one childhood disease, Indiana University says it has hired 33 research faculty from throughout the country and made large strides in building advanced research and clinical programs.

The university gave a progress report Tuesday on its “precision health initiative” that seeks to make a major difference in diseases prevalent in the Midwest.

Precision medicine is an approach to the prevention and treatment of diseases that calls for studying the genetic, developmental, environmental and behavioral factors that might contribute to a disease.

For the first time, IU identified specific disease goals it plans to focus on under the sweeping program.

At the top of the list is developing new approaches for treating triple negative breast cancer and multiple myeloma, with the goal of curing more patients with those cancers.

IU also wants to cure more children with pediatric sarcoma, a deadly cancer found in tissues such as tendons, bones and muscles.

In addition, the university wants to develop ways to prevent the onset and progression of Type 2 diabetes by discovering what biological factors trigger the disease and tailoring treatments to individuals.

Lastly, researchers hope to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by researching the role of the immune system and developing new immunotherapies.

IU said two years ago that it would spend as much as $120 million on the initiative and collaborate with outside partners from Eli Lilly and Co., Roche Diagnostics, Cook Regentec, Deloitte, Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University Health. It also said it would hire 40 new full-time faculty members.

It’s part of the university’s Grand Challenges Program, a push to tackle “major and large-scale problems facing humanity” that can only be addressed by multidisciplinary research teams.

Other initiatives under the Grand Challenges umbrella are a $55 million program to study how Indiana can prepare for the effects of climate change and a $50 million program to understand addictions in light of the state's opioid epidemic.

The precision health initiative is being led by the IU School of Medicine, in partnership with IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, School of Informatics and Computing, School of Nursing, Fairbanks School of Public Health and Kelley School of Business.

“To say we’re going to cure cancer is a bold statement and many people will say we may not reach that goal,” said Dr. Anantha Shekhar, executive associate dean for research affairs at the IU School of Medicine. “But it will be worth trying, getting close, even if we don’t reach the goal.”

He added: “As you know, some hyperbole is necessary for motivating some people to think big and reach higher.”

In addition, the university said a team led by social scientists from IU Bloomington will soon begin canvassing rural Indiana to collect information and DNA samples from residents of all backgrounds. The goal is to get a sample of 2,000 Indiana residents.

The most ambitious goal, curing more patients with cancer, has already made progress, the university said. The research team for triple negative breast cancer is about to wrap up its first mid-stage clinical trial, which compares precision-guided therapy against the current standard of care.

The multiple myeloma research team is enrolling 1,000 patients who are willing to donate blood, saliva and other specimens, with the goal to evaluate their clinical, genomic and environmental data.

The university’s clinical partner, IU Health, plans to administer a treatment known as CAR T-cell therapy to its first relapsed diffuse large B cell lymphoma patient. The therapy is considered by some as a potential cure for certain types of leukemia and known for improved remission rates in certain lymphomas.


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