An Amazon of Tumors

September 18, 2015
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At the end of the 1990s, none of the world’s pharmaceutical companies were working on therapies to treat brain tumours in children. It wasn’t a profitable market; brain tumours are rare in comparison to other types of cancer, such as breast or prostate cancer. But another issue impeding progress was the lack of collaboration among research teams. Most institutions would carry out research on their own samples of tumour tissue and would hold on to the samples, which – according to oncologist Jim Olson – meant research papers were typically based on only a small number of samples.

Olson’s vision was to create a place where cancer researchers would work together by sharing their tumour samples, then create and share their experimental mice, with the ultimate goal of creating drugs specifically for children with brain tumours. His dream was to create a virtual pharmaceutical company.

“We would have all the institutions in the country sending their brain tumour samples from kids to one place,” explained Olson. “That place would send part of the samples to my lab; my lab would then extract the DNA and the RNA out of it. Then from each of those, we’d make a hundred kits that each had a hundred samples of DNA and RNA. Any time a researcher wanted to do research that required brain tumour DNA, they could send an email to me, and we would send them the kit the next day.

“Instead of spending ten years to collect twelve samples, two weeks later they’d have a hundred samples. They could do their experiment, publish it and move on. That was just this common sense, ‘Let’s work together’.”

(image: flickr/Jurgen Appelo CC BY 2.0)

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