Unique health repository takes aim at cancer in women

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Thursday, May 21, 2009)

By Gail Appleson St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When Kathleen Price opened the notice that came in the mail about her annual mammogram at the Joanne Knight Breast Health Center at the Center for Advanced Medicine, there was an enclosed flier asking her to donate blood for a study on women’s cancers.

Price, who lives in Webster Groves, knew immediately that she would participate.

“I think it’s important to have as much information about women’s health as possible,” Price said. “Historically, decisions on how to treat women’s health problems have been based on men.”

Price is among the 25,000 women who get mammograms at the Breast Health Center who are being asked to give blood and medical data to a women’s health repository. The information will be used in future Washington University School of Medicine research on such topics as why certain women get breast cancer and why they respond differently to some treatments.

“Whatever I can do to help the researchers and other women is important to me,” Price said.

Dr. Graham Colditz, Washington University’s principal researcher on this study, said researchers hope to gather at least 20,000 blood samples. And while this makes it a large repository, the reason the study is unusual is because it combines blood samples and mammography.

“This sets it apart from anything else going,” he said.

Colditz is also the associate director for prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center. He came to Washington U. from Harvard University, where he was a principal investigator of the Nurses’ Health Study that has collected information on more than 120,000 nurses since 1976.

In the current Washington University study, Colditz said the researchers began collecting blood samples last fall and plan to continue the program until summer 2011. So far, about 2,000 women, or about one out of every three who come in for mammograms, have donated blood.

“The bigger the sample, the better chance there is to get answers,” he said.

One of the ways the repository works, Colditz said, is if a healthy woman donates blood now but develops breast or other cancers in years to come, researchers can study her blood for markers.

Although there are no direct benefits to the women who donate blood, the study of their information may result in new tests and treatments, and it may help to prevent or cure diseases.

When women come to the Breast Health Center they are asked to donate a small sample of blood, about six teaspoons, which is drawn at an office on the same floor. The blood can be donated the same day or later. The process takes about 15 minutes.

Women are also asked to allow the repository to keep health information from their medical records, including any X-rays or images. Researchers request permission to continue collecting data from women’s records so any changes in health can be recorded.

In addition, they would like to store any breast, cervical, ovary or uterine tissue that is left from future medical procedures.

When data, tissue and blood is collected, it is entered into a database and assigned a code number. This prevents researchers, who study information taken from the repository, from knowing the names of women who donated the materials.

Although helping other women could be enough incentive to donate a small amount of blood, donors also get a $10 Schnucks card and a free parking coupon for their time.

For more information, call Courtney Beers at 314-454-7998.

Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.