Nearly nine years ago, a cancer surgeon from Russia traveled to Philadelphia to meet with me and colleagues at Fox Chase Cancer Center to learn from our best practices in cancer care. What we thought would be a one-way transfer of knowledge from the United States to Russia quickly grew into a substantive alliance where information and insights were shared equally between both Russian and US oncologists and scientists.
The US is no doubt a leader in cancer research, care, and prevention. Yet, this collaboration with Russia, which was formalized in 2001 as the American Russian Cancer Alliance (ARCA), is a clear demonstration that our colleagues throughout the world can provide valuable insight, perspective, and knowledge in our quest to understand risk factors and develop therapies for cancer.
Russia has a centralized system of delivering cancer care that provides a strong foundation for conducting research as well as the availability of necessary resources to initiate research projects in an efficient manner. In addition, our Russian ARCA members provide superior guidance, development, and production of radioisotopes for the creation of new research programs.
These facts and others show how beneficial this collaboration is as these research tools are not widely available to scientists and physicians in either country, but have made it available to ARCA.
As we struggle to look more broadly and more creatively at the cancer challenges that face us, we would do well to invite international partnerships that can offer fresh perspectives and greater understanding of the role of environment, culture, and genetic factors in cancer.
Developing collaborations internationally is not as daunting as it sounds; the smallest gesture can spark a relationship that over time can grow into a fruitful partnership. Today, ARCA is a collaboration between Fox Chase Cancer Center, the N.N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center, the Russian Nuclear Industry Network, and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute (UMBI).
The alliance identifies and capitalizes on the special expertise and experience of members for the advancement of cancer research and its translation to clinical application. This coalition of resources and ideas, coupled with support from Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD, House Majority Leader, 110th Congress), who has been instrumental in program recognition and funding, has allowed us to explore a number of promising avenues, including research programs, training fellowships, and informational exchanges orchestrated through highly successful Russian-American scientific conferences.
Lung Cancer Prevention
One of the most compelling ARCA initiatives includes the work we have completed around lung cancer prevention. Most would agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and this is very true when discussing lung cancer, where cures are all too rare but where over 90% of cases are linked to smoking.
With one of the highest smoking rates in the world, Russia offers a unique environment in which to conduct research to better understand tobacco use. Researchers at Fox Chase and the N.N. Blokhin Russian Cancer Research Center, with funding and infrastructure support from the National Cancer Institute and NIH Fogarty International Center, have conducted a study in Russia to address the issue of tobacco use among cancer patients and to identify key correlates of cancer and persistent smoking.
Researchers have been able to use this information to select appropriate pharmacotherapies, identify high-risk smokers, and provide those in need with more intensive intervention. This research, as well as other tobacco-control activities and forums initiated by ARCA, recently led Russia to join the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and equally as important, implement public health policies to ban smoking in public spaces.
The benefits of this collaboration also carry beyond Russia's borders to the United States. The alliance has also explored the nature of nicotine addiction by identifying genes related to nicotine dependence, which can provide critical guidance for developing effective prevention programs targeted to those at high risk for becoming addicted and to tailored interventions based on a specific profile.
This treatment-matching potential may enhance treatment efficacy and help save limited resources for nicotine addiction solutions. With nearly a quarter of the US population still smoking, it is clear we can all benefit from this research.
This progress—both in Russia and the US—has been made possible because of a sharing and transfer of knowledge between two very different cultures and environments that have allowed each access to resources and settings not available in the other country.
As we develop proposals in our own work in cancer research, we must remind ourselves to think broadly in experiment design to explore unorthodox collaborations that can result in substantive progress as well as positive dialogue with researchers abroad.
Other Rich Partnerships in Waiting
With such a diverse global population, there are certainly other rich partnerships waiting to form, and advancements in technology over the past decade have made these collaborations even easier to develop and maintain.
The next time you travel to an international conference or interact with international colleagues take a few minutes to expand your network and reach out to our foreign colleagues. All it takes is one conversation to spark a relationship that could result in the next significant idea in your research.
Cancer is a global issue, and it will take a global community—brought together through partnerships like these—to realize progress on all fronts.