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MD Anderson, Broad Institute Partner on Rare Cancers

Cancer on clipboard

(Nick Youngson,

11 May 2021. MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Broad Institute are developing a new research platform for better understanding rare types of cancer. The partnership aims to create a research system based on models of rare cancers with detailed data about those models to guide design of new therapies to treat rare types of tumors.

The collaboration joins Houston-based MD Anderson’s research on rare cancers with two programs underway at Broad Institute, a genetics research center in Cambridge, Mass. affiliated with Harvard University and MIT. MD Anderson, part of the University of Texas system, studies rare cancers in its Therapeutics Discovery division. That division establishes research platforms, organized systems for studying particular types or aspects of cancer.

In this project, MD Anderson and Broad Institute are establishing a research platform for rare cancers, defined by National Cancer Institute as cancers that occur in fewer than 15 in 100,000 people each year. MD Anderson says rare cancers account for a quarter of all cancer cases and deaths, but because each of these cancer types has a low rate of occurrence, they’re difficult to study and understand. More than 5,000 patients with rare types of cancer, says MD Anderson, seek treatment each year.

Produce more than 100 rare cancer models a year

In the partnership, Broad Institute is offering its Cancer Cell Line Factory, or CCLF, a library of tumor tissue samples converted into cell lines, organoids, or spherical models. Broad Institute says CCLF has 409 cancer models derived from more than 2,300 tissue samples, representing 37 types of cancer. More than one-third (36%) of the models represent rare or pediatric cancers. One of the goals of CCLF is to produce a diverse set of cancer models, particularly from underrepresented groups, which Broad Institute shares with the scientific community.

Models produced by CCLF will then be analyzed by Broad Institute’s Cancer Dependency Map. DepMap, as it’s called, catalogs genetic and pharmacological dependencies for each type of cancer, indicating their vulnerabilities and target biomarkers. DepMap offers analytics for more than 2,000 cancer models, and provides visualization tools. Downloads from Broad Institute’s DepMap portal are available to the public.

“Treatments for rare cancers have lagged behind common tumors,” says William Sellers, director of Broad Institute’s cancer program in a statement, “in large part because we as a community lack the tools to study and understand their unique biology in the laboratory. This initiative represents a significant opportunity to close that gap and to start identifying new treatment options for patients with rare cancers.”

The partnership aims to produce more than 100 rare cancer models each year. “Through this initiative, we hope to overcome some of the challenges that have prevented effective translational research in rare cancers,” adds Timothy Heffernan, head of oncology research in MD Anderson’s Therapeutics Discovery division. “By collaborating with the Broad Institute, we have a tremendous opportunity to create a valuable resource for the entire scientific community that will inspire and catalyze a wave of innovative research to advance impactful new therapies to patients in need.”

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