IBBL is central biobank for a new European cancer research programme

The Breast International Group (BIG) has chosen IBBL (Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg) to act as the central European biobank for the storage of samples from their new research programme. The programme is a large scale effort to elucidate how and why breast cancer spreads to other organs in the body. Patients will be recruited in about 15 European countries, including Luxembourg, and the thousands of collected biopsies and blood samples will be stored at IBBL.

At the time of diagnosis, 1 in 10 breast cancer patients has a tumour which has spread to another organ (known as metastasis), most frequently the liver, lungs, brain or bones. Even when the cancer hasn’t yet spread to other organs, in 20-30% of patients it eventually will. Devastatingly, statistics suggest that those patients with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer live on average for only 2-3 years after the metastasis is detected. This is already a significant improvement on the 18 months patients with metastatic breast cancer were expected to live 30 years ago. But, clearly, more work needs to be done. The current efforts to develop better therapies that extend life and improve quality of life are hampered by two facts. Firstly, it is still poorly understood why and how cancer spreads. On top of that, much of the funding for breast cancer research is dedicated to the detection and treatment of early stage breast cancer, not to the later stages of the disease.

To tackle this problem, the Breast International Group (BIG), a non-profit network of breast cancer research groups from around the world, has launched a new research programme called AURORA. This programme will look for genetic aberrations in metastatic breast cancer on a large scale. Indeed, the programme aims to recruit 1,300 patients from 15 European countries, with the intention of expanding outside Europe in the future, if sufficient funding becomes available. The women and men participating in the programme will donate biopsies from their primary tumour and the metastases, as well as blood samples. Some of these samples will then be sent to a specialised laboratory for immediate genetic analysis, while the rest will be sent to IBBL (Integrated BioBank of Luxembourg), where it will be stored for later analysis. IBBL was chosen to act as the central biorepository for the AURORA programme and will receive samples from the approximately 80 participating hospitals across Europe to preserve them for up to 20 years, according to local laws and regulations. In addition, IBBL plays a crucial part in the Luxembourg arm of the programme. The biobank’s pathology department will process the tissue biopsies collected from Luxembourg patients taking part in the study.

Last year, IBBL signed a first contract with BIG for the storage of over 50,000 breast cancer samples from another one of the network’s clinical trials. The fact that clients, especially internationally renowned organisations, are returning is clearly a positive sign, as Dr Catherine Larue, IBBL’s CEO points out: ”It is always great to see that a client is happy with our service and wants to continue working with us on other projects. I am particularly pleased that IBBL is involved in this specific programme, because it can potentially make a real difference in improving the survival of patients with metastatic breast cancer.” Under AURORA, primary breast tumour samples and corresponding metastases, together with blood, will be analysed for genetic aberrations. This should help improve our understanding of how tumours evolve and spread and why some respond to a given treatment, while others are resistant. Ideally, this could also lead to the discovery of new “biomarkers” – molecules that can help determine prognosis or predict treatment response. Another of AURORA’s objectives is to identify patients with genetic aberrations that can potentially be targeted by new drugs. By doing so, the hope is to be able to direct some AURORA patients to clinical trials that could be relevant to them.

In addition to the participation of IBBL and Luxembourg patients through the Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg, part of the funding for the programme comes from Luxembourg. The Fondation Cancer donated over €1.2 million to the Aurora programme, which adds to the substantial contribution from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) and those of the National Lottery in Belgium, the NIF Trust and individual donors.