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The Need for Speed

It's academic. Global. Virtual. Jean Marc Nabholtz ticks off on his fingers the characteristics of the innovative cancer research group that he heads.

Speed is a fourth characteristic of the Breast Cancer International Research Group, which Nabholtz was instrumental in establishing and which is already viewed as a model.

Nabholtz describes the BCIRG, which is centred at the U of A, as a "fruit of necessity." It was born of a need to facilitate interaction between the pharmaceutical industry and the academic world in the development of new and promising agents for use in treating breast cancer.

More than anything else, the BCIRG is about the need for speed — the need to lose no time in getting the best possible treatments to patients. A clinician and head of the Northern Alberta Breast Cancer Program, Nabholtz must, on a daily basis, deal with the reality of patients dying. He points out that while the drug manufacturers are bringing forward a multitude of promising new compounds — any one of which could dramatically reduce the toll taken by breast cancer — none can be proven or see widespread use until it is thoroughly tested in clinical trials. And the traditional testing methodology is painfully slow, and the pool of suitable candidates, limited.

"With BCIRG we are fighting the classical paradigm where each country does its own testing," says Nabholtz. His international group currently consists of more than 500 investigators in 22 countries located on four continents. The investigators all have solid academic credentials and are linked together through modern computer and telecommunications technology.

The fact that the BCIRG is "virtual", rather than being more rigidly constructed, gives it the ability to adapt quickly, and the fact that it deals with a variety of manufacturers gives it an extra degree of credibility. For any clinical trial a flexible selection of academic investigators can be quickly formulated based on the type of strategies and trials to he performed. Whereas in Canada enroling 400 patients in one cancer trial is often difficult, the BCIRG can quickly deliver a much larger number of suitable candidates — and they come from a very diverse backgrounds, which gives greater validity to the results.

The BCIRG was established less than two years ago with industry funding for two large adjuvant drug trials, and it has already shown how quickly it can deliver results: its first huge trial was completed 12 months early.

Nabholtz admits that he has "worked like crazy" to make BCIRG a success (he estimates that in the past two years he has given between 70 and 100 lectures worldwide to promote the group) but the "phenomenal" response has been rewarding, he says. He can also find satisfaction in the fact that the BCIRC success has not gone unnoticed: already there is agrcat deal of interest in establishing a parallel group in the area of lung cancer.

But what's most important of all, he says, is that better drugs will he getting to patients sooner. "That's what matters."

Published Winter 1999.

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