Large-Scale Study to Tackle Cancer Prevention from a Population Perspective

Originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Pathways to Discovery

The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC) is embarking on an ambitious project to investigate the causes and risk factors of cancer. To achieve this objective, the Chicago Multiethnic Prevention and Surveillance Study, or COMPASS, is establishing a large cohort of 100,000 Chicago residents for population research in cancer and other chronic diseases.

The first-of-its kind study will establish the only such cohort in a geographically-defined urban environment with a focus on a medically underserved population.
It will be a major population research resource for the UCCCC, as well as UChicago, for the study of genomic, healthcare-related, and urban lifestyle, environmental, and behavioral factors that contribute to risk for cancer and other chronic diseases (such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes) and, thus, the development of prevention strategies.

Over the past year, a team of 12 field research staff have been hired and trained to recruit 3,000 Chicago residents, including English-speaking men and women ages 35 and above, to participate in the pilot phase of the study. Each participant completes a specially designed interview––which includes questions about lifestyle, environmental exposure, and healthcare-related information, as well as medical history––and provides a blood and urine sample. These samples will be used to examine the relationship between genetic factors and predispositions with hereditary, lifestyle and/or behavioral factors that contribute to disease development and progression. Additionally, follow-up questionnaires will be mailed every two to three years to obtain updated health information.

The goal is to recruit up to 100,000 population-representative individuals across randomly selected Census tracts in the Chicago metropolitan area over the next five years. In Chicago, the disease rates and severity of cancer and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases, are often worse than those observed in other areas in the United States.

“Chicago provides the ideal context for this type of research because of the prevalence of underserved multiethnic populations,” said Habibul Ahsan, MBBS, MMedSc, Louis Block Professor of Health Studies, Medicine, and Human Genetics, UCCCC associate director for population research, and principal investigator of COMPASS. “Any knowledge we generate in relation to this population’s cancer risk and approaches to prevention will be meaningful and have an impact in reducing cancer disparities.”

Approaching cancer prevention and treatment from a population-research perspective will complement hospital-based clinical trials. By identifying new biomarkers and applying these to expedite screening, UCCCC researchers can potentially reduce health disparities by accelerating identification of those at increased risk for cancer, developing interventions, and providing early diagnosis and treatment for populations at risk.

“Because a small fraction of individuals actually develop a specific type of cancer and it takes years before a healthy individual develops cancer, a large sampling of the population needs to be followed to answer research questions with confidence,” said Dr. Ahsan.

He explained that at the beginning, COMPASS will collect as much broad and extensive data as possible so that, over time, population scientists can focus on certain aspects as they become more and more relevant. The data will enable them to answer endless research questions about how genetic, lifestyle, healthcare-related and environmental factors function alone or interact together to increase the risk of certain types of cancer and other complex diseases.

By identifying patients at high risk across different ethnic groups and developing new interventions and early diagnostics for these individuals, the UCCCC aims to make groundbreaking discoveries that translate to sustainable disease prevention programs.

“This type of study of a large population-representative group of people over an extended period of time has never been done before,” said Dr. Ahsan. “The knowledge we acquire will be valuable and applicable to the general population throughout the nation.”

The University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center

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