Revolutionary Statewide UC Collaboration Targets Breast Cancer

September 29, 2009
News Office: Elizabeth Fernandez (415) 502-6397

The University of California is launching an unprecedented statewide collaboration for breast cancer patients with the goal of revolutionizing the course of their care by designing and testing new approaches to research, technology and health care delivery.

Named the ATHENA Breast Health Network, the groundbreaking project will initially involve 150,000 women throughout California who will be screened for breast cancer and followed for decades through the five UC medical centers. ATHENA is a University of California system-wide project supported by a $5.3 million University of California grant and a $4.8 million grant from the Safeway Foundation.

The project is expected to generate a rich collection of data and knowledge that will shape breast cancer care in the way the renowned Framingham heart study changed the care of patients with heart disease.

"ATHENA is a model of multi-institutional collaboration and demonstrates the enormous potential in shared systems," said Dr. John D. Stobo, UC senior vice president for health sciences and services. "This is a great example of the power of our statewide university network of academic medical centers; this initiative will demonstrate that the total of what can be accomplished by UC functioning as an integrated system can far exceed the sum of contributions by the individual campuses. ATHENA represents an unprecedented opportunity to play a leadership role in driving critical changes in health care. The public nature of the UC institutions make them uniquely positioned to study the appropriateness and effectiveness of treatment. It also allows for the applied use of new scientific evidence, much of which has been developed in the UC medical centers, to truly change the delivery of care."

The medical centers involved in the large-scale demonstration project are UC San Francisco as the host campus, UC Davis, UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego and UC Irvine. Also participating in the collaboration are the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, the Northern California Cancer Center, Quantum Leap Healthcare Collaborative, the National Cancer Institute's BIG Health Consortium and the Center for Medical Technology Policy.

"We are excited to be supporting this innovative collaboration that, to date, has the clearest potential to produce ground breaking research that will bring us closer to a cure," said Larree Renda, Safeway Inc. executive vice president, chief strategist and administrative officer and chair of the Safeway Foundation.

Breast cancer, the most common cancer in women, is a devastating and costly disease, striking more than 200,000 women annually and killing more than 40,000 women each year, according to the American Cancer Society. In the United States, more than $20 billion is spent annually screening and treating the disease.

ATHENA is designed to more efficiently integrate financing, technology, research and clinical care, creating an infrastructure model that could be utilized for many medical conditions.

"Our goal is to improve survival and reduce suffering from breast cancer, to accelerate research and compress the time to implement innovations in clinical practice," said ATHENA principal investigator Dr. Laura Esserman, professor of surgery and radiology, director of the UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center and co-leader of the breast oncology program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"By working together as a community, the University of California medical centers, their affiliates, primary care and specialty physicians and patient advocates will work to change the options for patients today and create a better future for all women at risk for developing breast cancer," she added.

The goals of the ATHENA initiative are:

  • To create common systems to integrate clinical research and care across the UC campuses to advance the science of prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
  • To drive innovation across the UC system to deliver and finance more effective and efficient systems for personalized and biologically targeted care, using breast cancer as a prototype.
  • To create a biospecimen repository that has broad racial and ethnic representation.
  • To reduce morbidity and mortality by gaining a molecular understanding of breast cancer and factors that fuel breast cancer risk.
  • To improve understanding of who is at risk for what kind of cancer, and whether the risk of that cancer is significant or minimal.
  • To generate the evidence for developing more effective and less toxic treatments and to drive innovation in prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
  • To provide tools to change the way patients and providers interact to prevent and manage the disease.