Dr. Laura Esserman will sing to her cancer patients, hug them, hold their hands, answer their toughest questions — anything to comfort them. But when it comes to curing their disease, her impatience is a virtue.
|Dr. Laura Esserman|
The surgeon is spearheading a new University of California-led initiative to accelerate advancements in breast cancer prevention, screening and treatment. The ATHENA Breast Health Network harnesses UC's collective power into a common cause: battling breast cancer with Silicon Valley-style collaboration, innovation and speed.
"By working together, you can do it much faster," said Esserman, ATHENA principal investigator and UC San Francisco professor of surgery and radiology. "You need a critical mass. Together, we have it. Alone, it's too expensive."
A medical doctor with a master's in business administration, Esserman is also director of the UC San Francisco Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center and co-leader of the breast oncology program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Hosted at UCSF, ATHENA will involve 150,000 women throughout California who will be screened for breast cancer and followed for several decades through the five UC medical centers — UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC San Diego and UCSF. Participants include 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.
ATHENA is supported by a $5.3 million UC Office of the President grant and $4.8 million grant from the Safeway Foundation, announced today (Sept. 29).
"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,'' Esserman said. "The primary thing is to integrate research and care."
ATHENA investigators aspire to enable personalized medicine and to drive innovation in breast cancer prevention, screening and treatment by developing common systems, partnering with industry and providing state-of-the-art molecular diagnostics that can analyze a breast cancer tumor and categorize the risk of breast cancer recurrence. They also will create a biospecimen repository that tracks mammograms, biopsy specimens, cancer specimens and serial blood specimens to allow large-scale comparative research to help tailor treatments. The project aims to shape breast cancer care as the 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's 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 its individual campuses."
Esserman, who received medical and business degrees from Stanford, joined UCSF in 1993. With ATHENA, she wants to apply business concepts to medicine by creating a culture of collaboration, continuous improvement, constant feedback and efficiency to fuel innovation.
"It's about driving progress at a pace that patients expect from us," Esserman said. "The most exciting thing is the enthusiasm of all the participants. People are excited about ways to think out of the box and share systems."
ATHENA builds on UC's depth and breadth of cancer research: All five UC medical centers are designated by the National Cancer Institute as comprehensive cancer centers. UC medical centers annually screen as many as 80,000 women, and diagnose 2,500 patients with breast cancer. Also, the UC Office of the President administers the California Breast Cancer Research Program, which has awarded 860 grants to 98 scientific institutions and community entities, totaling more than $205 million for research in California to prevent, treat and cure breast cancer.
The most common cancer in women, breast cancer strikes around 200,000 women annually and kills more than 40,000 women each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
One of the survivors is Janet Hunter, 57, of San Francisco.
Diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 2002, Hunter was treated at UCSF by Esserman. After receiving surgery, radiation and drug therapy with tamoxifen, Hunter was shocked that 2 ½ years later she was diagnosed with another form of breast cancer. Esserman reassured her, sang her a song from "Wicked" and performed surgery again. Hunter, now taking an aromatase inhibitor drug, is in great health today.
"Laura is my hero," said Hunter, who started the Friends of the UCSF Breast Care Center, which has raised about $2 million in five years to support the center's director, Esserman, helping to pave the way for projects such as ATHENA. "She is relentless. She sees what can be done and doesn't take no for an answer."
Hunter has high hopes for ATHENA.
"We have so many brilliant doctors and researchers who are in the system. I think it's wonderful for UC," Hunter said. "I think we'll get closer to finding a cure."
Esserman has set her sights beyond breast cancer as well. The ATHENA model could be applied to other cancers, diabetes or heart disease, she said.
"We have to be part of the solution," Esserman said.
The UC Office of the President is encouraging collaborations through the Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives competition that awarded $68 million in grants to 37 projects. The projects, which include ATHENA, will assemble statewide teams of UC experts to focus around research areas important to California from clean energy to social disparities.
Alec Rosenberg is coordinator of health science communications at the UC Office of the President.