Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics receives additional commitment from Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., to advance technologies that could transform cancer care

Commitment of $20 million will propel efforts to develop, optimize, and demonstrate liquid biopsy technology along with other cancer diagnostics to enable more precise cancer care.

Andela Crnjac, a research associate in the Gerstner Center, processes samples for analysis
Credit: Juliana Sohn
Andela Crnjac, a research associate in the Gerstner Center, processes samples for analysis

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has received a new $20 million commitment by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former CEO and chairman of the board of IBM Corporation, and former chairman of the board of directors of the Broad Institute. This commitment to the Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics includes $10 million for current support for the Center and $10 million in endowed funding, adding to the $15 million originally committed by Gerstner and an initial endowment of $10 million from the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation to establish the Center in 2019.

Directed by Viktor Adalsteinsson, the Gerstner Center for Cancer Diagnostics aims to advance liquid biopsies for cancer detection and monitoring and other innovative approaches to cancer diagnostics that could potentially benefit millions of patients worldwide. Liquid biopsies enable clinicians to find and analyze tumor DNA in a patient’s blood sample to detect cancer early, monitor cancer recurrence, assess the patient’s response to treatment, and measure other clinically important features in real time, without invasive procedures. The initial focus of the Gerstner Center is to develop an ultrasensitive liquid biopsy test to detect minimal residual disease (MRD) — the presence of tumor cells in the body after treatment. Doing so would guide treatment decisions, such as whether to continue therapy.

"We always knew that detecting cancer recurrence with a blood test would be an incredible feat, and the scientists in the Gerstner Center have risen to the challenge," said Todd Golub, director of the Broad Institute and faculty at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. "This generous additional commitment recognizes this team’s incredible progress, and will enable them to expand on these efforts and make an even bigger impact on the field."

Adalsteinsson added, “With the continued visionary partnership of Lou Gerstner, we can expand on the kind of high-risk, high-reward work that in our first few years has begun to establish and advance technologies of transformative potential for cancer patients.”

Although liquid biopsies could profoundly improve cancer care, they still need to be much more sensitive to reliably and accurately detect cancer at its earliest stages, identify MRD before relapse, and uncover clinically significant features that could inform cancer care. Since its launch, the Gerstner Center has been initially focused on improving liquid biopsies for MRD detection, which requires much higher levels of sensitivity. The challenge, however, is twofold — they are seeking not only to improve the sensitivity of the test, but to do so in a way that keeps costs down, a necessary step to make it an accessible tool in clinical settings.

To overcome these hurdles, Gerstner Center scientists developed a method called MAESTRO, which detects low-abundance mutations using up to 100-fold less sequencing. The team is using MAESTRO to test for thousands of cancer mutations in a patient’s blood draw to achieve 10- to 100-fold higher sensitivity for MRD detection than existing methods. The MRD test is being used to analyze hundreds of samples from cancer patients, with promising data showing its ability to discern which patients respond to preoperative chemotherapy. Earlier this year, the Broad entered into an agreement with Exact Sciences to further develop the MAESTRO MRD test for clinical use. Such a test could help physicians detect recurrences earlier, intervene sooner, and tailor therapy to each patient.

In addition to MAESTRO, Gerstner Center scientists have developed other promising new technologies, including CODEC, a technique that helps generate highly accurate sequencing data at low cost. The approach has potential uses beyond cancer diagnostics, and indeed, in other diseases beyond cancer. In addition, the team developed Duplex-Repair, a novel DNA repair method that could further enhance the accuracy of CODEC and MAESTRO, along with other sequencing methods.

The researchers are also developing, together with the labs of Sangeeta Bhatia and J. Christopher Love at MIT, the first priming agents for liquid biopsies. These are injections given to a patient prior to a blood draw to boost the amount of tumor DNA recovered from a blood sample, enabling increased sensitivity.

The additional commitment from Gerstner will allow the Gerstner Center to continue optimizing its MRD test; to push DNA sequencing to its limits using CODEC, Duplex-Repair, and other advances; to further develop priming agents that could enable more sensitive liquid biopsy testing; and to continue innovating to address other major unmet needs in cancer diagnostics.

“I first partnered with the Broad to launch the Gerstner Center in order to impact clinical care for cancer patients, and I’ve been pleased to see that Viktor and his team have created an engine of innovation that could transform not only cancer treatment but possibly other fields as well,” said Gerstner. “That is why I’ve chosen to double down on this partnership and I am excited to see what emerges from the Center’s next phase.”