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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

ATHENA breast health network revolutionizes cancer research

The UC Davis Cancer Center, along with four other University of California-designated cancer centers and emerging partners, will take part in a large-scale demonstration project called the ATHENA Breast Health Network.

Named after the Greek goddess to symbolize the war against breast cancer, ATHENA will follow and study an estimate of 150, 000 women throughout California for a number of decades. “One benefit of the collaboration is the opportunity to have a large number of patients,” said Colleen Sweeney, co-director of the Breast Cancer Research Program.

“The larger number of women we can study, the better and more solid our results are. Rather than having everybody studying their own patients, and conducting their own research separately, we can unite to make a better impact,” Sweeney said.

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer deaths have been decreasing significantly since 1990, and the most recent data shows that they have dropped about 30 percent since 2006.

“It will take a couple of years to see an immediate impact on mortality rates, but the collaboration will essentially speed the process up because we will be able to study our hypothesis in a much larger group of women,” Sweeney said.

Women coming in to have breast cancer screenings have the option to take part in ATHENA and be followed for decades, said Sweeney. They will collaborate with the network by contributing information about themselves and their health statuses.

“One of the primary goals is to integrate effective research into clinical care,” said Tianhong Li, assistant professor of hematology and oncology who will be leading ATHENA at UC Davis.

“We will provide personalized breast cancer prevention and treatment based on risk profiles and evidence, and continuously analyze outcomes, biology comparative effectiveness of preventions as well as treatments,” Li said.

“Another beneficial aspect to the project is that we are focusing on a variety of subjects, which includes breast cancer patients and survivors, as well as healthy women who are at risk,” Li said.

In the past, subjects being studied were typically breast cancer patients.

The project will also allow for research to provide molecular tools to more accurately predict breast cancer risks, which can help for new ways to prevent the disease itself.

Other cancer centers taking part in this project in addition to UC Davis are UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UCLA, and lead campus UC San Francisco. This is the first time that they will all be working together in breast cancer research.

“In the past, we were not collecting information together, and now we will be developing common resources that all five UC campuses will use in data collecting. The plan, essentially, is to collaborate more, and to encourage it,” said Li.

As a result, a rich harvest of information can be accumulated in a short amount of time.

Though ATHENA’s primary goal and focus is on the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the tools and resources of this network are transferable and will serve as an aid in the study and research of other diseases and health conditions.

Other collaborating partners include the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, researchers at the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, BIG Health Consortium, Center for Medical Technology Policy, Quantum Leap Healthcare Collaborative and Biotechnology & Information Technology Companies.

More than $20 billion is spent annually in the United States to screen and treat breast cancer. This project itself is funded by a $5.3 million grant from the UC, and a $4.8 million grant from the Safeway Foundation.

In the spirit of October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sweeney will be organizing a Breast Cancer Research Symposium on Oct. 22 at UC Davis, where Dr. Li will be giving a presentation on the project.

“This will be our third annual one, and it will shine a light on ATHENA and raise an interest,” Sweeney said.

More information about the ATHENA Breast Health Network can be found at athenacarenetwork.org/.


VANNA LE can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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