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Massive Study Tracks Women’s Health To Improve Breast Cancer Care

In what could be the biggest study of its kind, UC San Diego and four other schools have joined resources to track 150,000 California women for decades in order to better understand and improve care for breast cancer patients.

Named the Athena Breast Health Network, the project aims to identify better ways of treating and preventing a disease that affects roughly 200,000 new women a year and kills 40,000.

“Breast cancer is a heterogeneous disease,” said Dr. Dennis Carson, director of the Moores UCSD Cancer Center. “Only by participating in very large documented studies can it impact disease.”

The American Cancer Society estimates the United States spends more than $20 billion a year screening and treating the disease. Carson said the study could eventually lead to more individualized treatments, leading to reduced health care costs.

“In the long run, this will save money for the UC system and take care of many, many patients,” he said.

Project researchers say they aim to generate a rich collection of data that could pinpoint new genetic markers involved in the disease and how lifestyle behaviors affect disease onset. Using a sophisticated computer network, researchers will be able to share their findings and evaluate any trends. Unaffiliated researchers could also tap into the network to help support their own work.

“This project will standardize the collection of structured data from both patients and physicians so that it is computable, interoperable and reusable,” said Laura Esserman, a UC San Francisco professor who will help lead the project.

The study, which has been in the works for almost a year, will be funded by a $5.3 million University of California grant and $4.8 million from the Safeway Foundation. The Safeway Foundation has been a major contributor of funds for breast cancer research in the last seven years, with donations of about $60 million.

Patterned After Landmark Study

Project researchers said they anticipate impacting research in the way the 1948 Framingham Heart Study changed heart disease care. The landmark study, named for the small Massachusetts town where it originated, led to better understanding of risk factors involved in the disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes and lack of exercise.

“We hope, in a similar fashion, Athena will provide huge amounts of clinical data to allow us to better understand risk assessment and provide better intervention,” said Dr. Barbara Parker, one of the study’s principal investigators and medical director for oncology services at Moores UCSD.

Roughly 13,000 women come to UCSD for mammogram screenings a year, she said. The university will rely on a network of clinics and other health care facilities to help enroll patients, she said.

Parker said additional funds will be needed to carry the study beyond the first decade.

“We hope to leverage the strength to apply for other funds through other strategic sources,” she said.


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