Broad Institute launches Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics

New endeavor will advance blood-based biopsies and other technologies to speed cancer diagnosis and track patients’ response to therapies

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard announced today a new $15 million commitment by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former CEO and chairman of the board of IBM Corporation, and current chairman of the board of directors of the Broad Institute, to create the Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics at the Broad Institute. The new Center will be endowed with an additional commitment of $10 million by the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation.

The Gerstner Center aims to advance blood-based biopsies for tracking disease progression and pursue other cancer diagnostics that have the potential to benefit millions of patients worldwide. The new Center builds upon a major effort at Broad focused on elucidating the mechanisms of cancer drug resistance, launched by a $10 million commitment from the Gerstner Family Foundation in 2015. This work has already given rise to a major project with IBM Watson Health to understand and prevent cancer progression, supported by $50 million in funding to create and make freely available to the scientific community data about cancer resistance.

While many aspects of cancer treatment have improved substantially over the past decade, diagnostics have lagged. Today, in order for a doctor to monitor a patient’s disease progression or response to treatment, they must either obtain a surgical tumor biopsy or send the patient for a CT or MRI scan. These approaches can be costly, invasive, and most importantly, provide no molecular insights.

Blood biopsies have the potential to monitor a patient’s response to treatment with molecular precision, with the potential to identify tumor recurrence much earlier than existing tests. As a result, blood biopsy can help patients and doctors determine whether a change in treatment is needed.

“There is a transformation underway in the field of cancer diagnostics,” said Eric S. Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute. “I am astounded at the progress we have seen in just the last five years—especially in the area of blood biopsies—by researchers here at the Broad and at other institutions. We have the opportunity now to profoundly improve patient care. With Lou’s visionary partnership, we can move closer toward making blood biopsy and other diagnostic technologies for tracking disease progression a powerful new standard-of-care for patients.”

The Gerstner Center will focus on response-monitoring, that is, tracking how a patient is faring under treatment, whether that is chemotherapy, radiation, or immunotherapy. It will also focus on studying patients with minimal residual disease, which involves identifying small numbers of cancer cells that remain in people who have undergone treatment, and which may result in relapse months to years, or even decades, later. Monitoring either patient response or minimal residual disease using blood biopsy requires greater sensitivity than is currently available, which is why the new Center will focus on these particular areas.

Tracking Tumor DNA

Blood biopsy (also sometimes called liquid biopsy) is a process in which clinicians detect and analyze cancer DNA from a single blood draw.

Cells in the body, including tumor cells, regularly expel fragments of DNA into the bloodstream. With blood biopsies, clinicians collect this “cell-free” DNA from a blood draw and then profile the fragments originating from cancer cells. Tracking this data could make it possible to monitor cancer recurrence, a patient’s response to treatment, and other clinically important features—all from blood samples. Much of it can be done in real time.

“Not long ago I thought that blood biopsy was more science fiction than reality,” said Todd Golub, Chief Scientific Officer at the Broad Institute, Director of the Cancer Program, and Director of the Gerstner Center. “But thanks to work here at the Broad as well as in many labs across the country, blood biopsy has become a reality. In fact, Broad scientists have demonstrated that it’s possible to look at an entire cancer genome from a blood biopsy. That is spectacular.” Golub is also the Charles A. Dana Investigator in Human Cancer Genetics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

“Using blood biopsy to track patient response will help us not only determine if a tumor has gotten smaller -- something imaging technologies already do -- but will help us understand what is happening to the molecular composition of the tumor, something you can’t do with a CT scan or MRI,” said Viktor Adalsteinsson, Associate Director of the Gerstner Center and leader of the blood biopsy team in the Broad’s Cancer Program. “Having had loved ones battle with cancer, I can say firsthand what potential impact this sort of technology and research could have on patients.”

The Gerstner Center will collaborate broadly, working closely with technology innovators, cancer biologists, computational scientists and clinicians. The Center will also pilot other promising new approaches to cancer diagnostics.

“I believe that the Broad Institute is uniquely poised to have a transformative effect in the world of cancer diagnostics,” Gerstner said. “The need is great, and I am committed to supporting this partnership to help doctors make the very best treatment decisions for their patients based on a molecular understanding of their progress in real-time. This will make cancer therapies more precise and ultimately far more effective.”