UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center has been selected as one of nine national research sites for the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, newly launched Cancer Screening Research Network (CSRN), which will evaluate promising and emerging cancer screening technologies.

Supporting the Biden-Harris Administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, the CSRN will conduct large, multi-center cancer screening studies with diverse populations in a variety of healthcare settings. The studies are designed to identify technologies that can detect cancers and pre-cancerous lesions before symptoms develop, and thereby reduce cancer incidence and cancer-related morbidity and mortality.

“NCI has launched the Cancer Screening Research Network to evaluate a variety of different technologies for the purpose of cancer screening,” says Lori M. Minasian, MD, deputy director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention. “Detecting cancer early is not enough to improve people’s lives. Through the Cancer Screening Research Network, we’re going to study whether using these new technologies will make a difference in people’s lives.”

Daniel Reuland, MD, MPH, Louise Henderson, PhD, MSPH, and Carrie Lee, MD, MPH, will lead the UNC Lineberger Accrual, Enrollment, and Screening Site (ACCESS) Hub.

“In our role as an ACCESS Hub, we will build on UNC Lineberger’s depth and breadth in designing and conducting innovative interventional cancer screening studies and clinical trials, and developing and analyzing large, complex data sets related to cancer screening,” says Reuland, professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and co-director of UNC Lineberger’s Carolina Cancer Screening Initiative. “Equally important, by partnering with clinical sites from across the state of North Carolina, we’ll be able to include a diverse population, in terms of race, age, education, income, and one that has a large rural component. This will help the research findings to be more widely applicable to populations and communities across the U.S.”

The CSRN will investigate new and developing screening technologies to see if the insights they generate are effective, accurate, and provide a clinical benefit for patients. 

Later this year, the CSRN will initiate the Vanguard Study on Multi-Cancer Detection (MCD) tests. Also known as liquid biopsies, MCD tests analyze blood and other body fluids for biological substances, including circulating cancer DNA fragments, that could suggest the presence of cancer. The study will enroll up to 24,000 people to inform the design of a much larger randomized controlled trial involving about 225,000 people. This larger trial will evaluate whether the benefits of using MCD tests to screen for cancer outweigh the harms, and whether they can detect cancer early in a way that reduces deaths.

“Cancer screening currently involves imaging tests or other medical procedures for several types of cancer, yet approximately half of cancer deaths occur in cancers with no current screening test,” says Henderson, professor of radiology at UNC School of Medicine and co-director of UNC Lineberger’s Carolina Cancer Screening Initiative. “MCD tests offer the promise of early detection for many different types of cancer across organ sites simultaneously. While there is a lot of excitement around MCD tests and their potential to revolutionize how we screen for cancer, the net benefits are unknown.”

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Lee, professor of medicine at UNC School of Medicine and medical director of UNC Lineberger’s Clinical Trials Office, says it is critical to generate more scientific evidence about which cancer diagnostic tests are beneficial and improve outcomes, and which ones are not.

“Sometimes tests can produce results that are not meaningful or actionable, and these results can cause people to have undue anxiety,” Lee says. “By conducting scientifically rigorous studies of cancer screening technologies, we want to develop a better understanding about whether a positive test result is actually associated with a cancer diagnosis, and whether early detection will have a meaningful impact on the individual’s prognosis and survival.”

Featured image: Dan Reuland, MD, MPH; Carrie Lee, MD, MPH; and Louise Henderson, PhD, MSPH. Photo: UNC Lineberger