Dr. Joshua Lang’s research seeks to understand how cancers can metastasize, or spread, to different parts of the human body. It’s a disease stage for which there is no cure.
He and others have found that cancer often spreads through a person’s bloodstream and capturing these cells in transit allows researchers to understand and develop new treatments.
Lang, an associate professor in the Division of Hematology, Medical Oncology and Palliative Care, has collaborated with biomedical engineers at UW to develop new microfluidic technologies that can capture rare cancer cells in a blood draw, rather than needing to perform needle biopsies.
In addition to understanding how cancer spreads, he also monitors how cancer cells evolve and develop a resistance to treatment. "And then we can leverage that information to develop new treatments for patients when the cancer becomes resistant to the therapies we’ve been giving,” Lang said.
The linchpin of this work is having access to fresh blood samples from cancer patients. Research like Lang’s is why UW Carbone Cancer Center launched WiscShare, a biological specimen collection protocol run by Translational Science BioCore BioBank.
With the consent of patients, WiscShare enables clinical staff to save remnant tissue and fluids that are being collected from a patient during the course of surgery, blood testing or other medical procedures. Those materials that would otherwise be disposed of are put to fruitful use in research labs.
“Those samples have uses anywhere from engineering to pharmacy to chemotherapy—there’s just so many applications, and we really depend on them because there is no substitute,” said Dr. Stephanie McGregor, faculty leader for BioBank.
Materials collected for BioBank include blood, bodily fluids, bone marrow, and both benign and cancerous tissue. McGregor said if there isn’t an immediate need for certain materials, they can be stored for future use.
Applications for these samples can include being grafted into animals or to create organoids. Both are methods to mimic what happens in the human body and using these in lab studies is an important step to vet treatments before use in a clinical trial phase.
“What our research is, it requires us to have patient samples because you can’t study these things with animal models,” Lang said.
WiscShare agreements are the main source of BioBank’s samples, and there is no cost for patients to participate. Security of patient medical records is top priority, so all identifying information is kept private by properly-trained staff.
In addition to his research, Lang also treats patients with bladder, kidney, prostate and testicular cancer. He said many of his patients appreciate being able to contribute samples through WiscShare agreements.
“It’s really a way for our patients to not just engage in being a part of research but really to help others in the future who are fighting the same disease,” Lang said.