The numbers on breast cancer are alarming: one out of eight women who live to be 85 will develop the disease. About 46,000 women will die from breast cancer this year alone, while 182,000 more women will develop it.

To combat these ever-increasing numbers, researchers from several departments in the School of Medicine, the Lineberger Compre - hensive Cancer Center, and the School of Public Health joined forces for a cooperative, multidisciplinary program called a “Specialized Program of Research Excellence” (SPORE). The program, one of only six in the nation, initially was funded by the National Cancer Institute in 1992 for three years. In October the Institute extended funding until the year 2000, for a total of $16.5 million.

This project started because of prompting from breast cancer advocates who said, ‘Basic science isn’t trickling down to me,’” explains Edison Liu, professor of medicine and director of the SPORE. “We’re trying to telescope the time it takes to impact, to manage, and to treat the disease. Ultimately, we’re trying to prevent breast cancer.”

The investigators are approaching the problem from three different directions-gene discovery, molecular epidemiology, and public health intervention, but they work as a team. “We have quality molecular biologists working with quality epidemiologists, not a molecular biologist trying to be an epidemiologist or vice versa,” Liu says.

Interdisciplinary research is the best way to solve the public health problems we have,” says Jo Anne Earp, professor of health behavior and health education and one of the SPORE’s lead investigators. “Cooperation among researchers, rather than competition, is the best way for the public to benefit.”

Collaborations on SPORE projects extend far beyond the researchers and the facilities in Chapel Hill. “The UNC SPORE is unique in that it combines several scientific disciplines and brings together lay citizens, the state government, and academic researchers,” says Liu. Investigators in epidemiology and public health intervention work with resources outside the state, such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and within the state, such as the North Carolina Central Cancer Registry, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and East Carolina University. The projects also draw on volunteers and on hundreds of professionals in hospitals, health departments, community clinics, radiology centers, and private medical practices in dozens of counties in North Carolina.

We’re trying to telescope the time it takes to impact, to manage, and to treat the disease. Ultimately, we’re trying to prevent breast cancer.” - Edison Liu

Partnership with local professionals and volunteers creates a direct link between the University and the people affected by the disease. Beth Newman, who heads the Carolina Breast Cancer Study, says her team will discuss their findings and implications with the women and the physicians who participated in that study. The North Carolina Breast Cancer Screening Program, headed by Earp, has been working with health care providers, community outreach specialists, and volunteers to build a sustainable infrastructure to encourage breast cancer screening long after the program has ended. “The SPORE is comprehensive and ambitious because the stakes are high, even for the people who don’t get breast cancer,” Liu says. “It affects the health and lives of our wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers.”