By Christine Haines | Published in the Daily Courier on October 23, 2018
Highlands Hospital is one of three hospitals in the nation partnering with the Clinical Breast Care Project, a repository of more than 100,000 donated tissue samples for the study of breast cancer.
The center is located in Windber, Pa., near Johnstown and was started in 2000 by Dickerson Run native Nick Jacobs in conjunction with the Department of Defense utilizing a grant obtained through the late Congressman Jack Murtha.
Connellsville is the third hospital to partner with the research center, joining Anne Arundel Hospital in Maryland and the Walter Reed-Bethesda Medical Center. To date, Jacobs said, 97 percent of the women asked have participated in the study. Jacobs, who is now retired, said he wanted to bring this program to his hometown as well.
“People from this area will be participating in the effort to stop breast cancer or to cure breast cancer,” Jacobs said. Women going to Highlands Hospital for mammograms will be asked if they want to participate in the study, Jacobs said, and if they agree, a blood sample will be taken. The partnership between the hospital and the Windber research center began a year ago, with the final stages of training and equipment installation just wrapping up now, said Vicki Meier, the hospital’s director of community and professional relations.
“It’s pay it forward. The information is being used for a cure, which is what we’re all about,” Meier said. Because the original repository was set up in conjunction with the Department of Defense, Jacobs said, it offered in-depth information over time. Jacobs said in the past, tissue samples weren’t necessarily handled well or in a uniform manner and did not come with information about the person they came from. Jacobs said nurses were hired to conduct an 800-field survey with those who were donating tissue samples so more was known about lifestyle, diet and family backgrounds.
That information is placed in a database and can be analyzed from many perspectives. “We started seeing a correlation between drinking coffee and a low incidence of breast cancer,” Jacobs said. “It created a treasure trove of information.” Jacobs said that because the project is affiliated with the military, medical data on the women is available for as long as they are serving in the armed forces. All military personnel have blood testing done every two years, so that information is also provided to the Windber site.
When Jacobs found his research scientists becoming distracted by the amount of data available and heading in a multitude of directions not necessarily related to the human body and cancer, he hired foreign doctors for the research team who had medical training but were unable to practice in the United States because their licensing was obtained elsewhere, keeping the research focus on the medical applications.
Jacobs retired in 2009, which is the same year the National Cancer Institute conducted an assessment of the Windber facility, ranking it as the only Platinum facility in the United States.
“They began using the tissue to map the human breast cancer genome,” Jacobs said. Genetic information is not the only benefit from the study, however. Jacobs said having additional information along with the tissue samples has allowed the researchers to learn so much more.
“Seventy five percent of what we’re dealing with is not genetic,” Jacobs said. Jacobs said there are numerous environmental and even cultural issues that can lead to higher cancer mortality rates.
Jacobs said a nearly epidemic proportion of breast cancer cases were found in an area near a municipal waste incinerator in one area.
When African-American women in the military were found to be in later stages of breast cancer than their caucasian peers, all with the same access to the same health care, it was found that culturally, fewer black women breast fed or conducted monthly self-examinations, leading to later diagnoses and more advanced cancers, Jacobs said. While the repository provides a wealth of information, because it has been primarily from U.S. military personnel, it contains few samples from either Hispanic or elderly women.
Jacobs said he has started a second research institute in Florida which studies 300 genes to determine how medications are metabolized, so drug therapies can be more efficient, especially in treating cancer where the wrong drug can be as damaging as the disease.
Christine Haines is a staff writer with the Daily Courier. She can be reached at 724-628-2000, ext. 116, or firstname.lastname@example.org.