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NCI Launches Competition to Spur Research on Breast Cancer Genomics, Disease Risk

July 2, 2015, by NCI Staff

Up for a challenge (U4C) graphic
Credit: National Cancer Institute

Last month, NCI launched a competition to spur research in an area of great public health interest: the genomic basis of breast cancer and breast cancer risk.

Researchers and research groups that participate in the competition, called “Up for A Challenge (U4C)—Stimulating Innovation in Breast Cancer Genetic Epidemiology,” can earn up to $50,000 in prizes. Participants must use data from genome-wide association studies (GWAS), and prizes will be awarded for producing research findings that help to identify novel molecular pathways involved in breast cancer susceptibility.

The innovative use of GWAS data can point to new research directions that can better identify women at increased risk of breast cancer and guide efforts to improve prevention and early detection, the competition organizers believe.

A government “challenge” like U4C is one path that federal agencies can take to drive innovation, explained Elizabeth Gillanders, Ph.D., of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS), which is sponsoring the challenge in collaboration with SAGE Bionetworks.

“A competition that encourages novel, cross-disciplinary research is an ideal way to help generate advances in the understanding of the genetic basis of breast cancer risk,” Dr. Gillanders said.

Despite notable improvements in the early detection and treatment of breast cancer, it remains the second most common cause of cancer death in U.S. women. Identifying which women are at increased risk for breast cancer is one approach to reducing the rate of and deaths from this disease, said DCCPS Director Robert Croyle, Ph.D.

Many epidemiologic studies have strongly suggested that genetic factors influence breast cancer risk, including the risk of specific types of breast cancer. Genome-wide association studies have helped to identify more than 90 common genetic variants that are associated with breast cancer risk.

Nevertheless, Dr. Gillanders said, “the results to date explain only a small portion of the estimated genetic contribution to breast cancer risk.”

The main goals of the U4C challenge, she continued, are to “increase the number and diversity of minds tackling this tough scientific problem, shift the focus of analysis from individual genetic variants to genetic pathways, and explore the role of common genetic variation in breast cancer health disparities.”

Researchers wishing to participate in U4C can apply for access to several GWAS data sets—some of which are being made available for the first time. These data represent thousands of breast cancer patients and control subjects from ethnically diverse populations.

Data access must be requested through NIH’s Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes. Research participants can also use data from publicly available sources.

Two groups will receive monetary prizes; the amount awarded will be based on specific criteria, including identification of novel findings, replication of findings, innovation of approach, evidence of novel biological hypotheses, and collaboration.

Complete details about the available data sets, timeline for the challenge, awards, and more are available on the U4C website. In addition, an introductory webinar on the challenge is scheduled for July 23 from 1:00-2:00 pm ET.

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