10/29/2015 12:15 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2016

The Artemis Project -- An Innovative Approach to Research

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, I was a partner in a Philadelphia law firm. I had no science background. My mother was head nurse at a hospital, and we often talked generally about medicine and science at the dinner table but I never had an interest in pursuing those fields. So I bring no bias about science to the conversation when I am talking about breast cancer. With a legal background, I was trained in logic and critical analysis more than anything else.

I was fortunate when a few years after my diagnosis I met a group of women who had come together to form the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC). When NBCC started, the scientific research world was quite different than it is today. Back then, the idea of an advocate being a part of the research design, review or just generally part of the discussion was considered absurd -- if it was considered at all. Yet when NBCC successfully lobbied for hundreds of millions more dollars dedicated to breast cancer research, and the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (DOD BCRP) began, we pushed to include advocates at the table for peer review of scientific research proposals and in setting the research agenda.

NBCC then began to look at designing a different system; one that would make certain breast cancer research was directed to ending breast cancer and eliminating mortality. NBCC wanted to expand the usual focus on individual research goals to include overarching issues using a collaborative approach. We launched our Aspen Project, bringing together stakeholders from diverse perspectives, and developed the Aspen Project Research Greenhouse that identified innovative paths to funding and conducting research.

When we set Breast Cancer Deadline 2020 in 2010, we recognized that we had to take an even more proactive leadership role in setting and implementing a research agenda. So NBCC started an innovative, mission-driven research effort, called the Artemis Project, led by advocates who have no other agenda but to accelerate the end of breast cancer and who are trained in the language and process of science through NBCC's Center for Advocacy Training and Project LEAD®. The Artemis Project is focused on two overarching issues: (1) primary prevention, or stopping women and men from getting breast cancer in the first place, and (2) prevention of metastasis, or stopping the spread of breast cancer, which is responsible for 90 percent of breast cancer deaths.

In order to develop specific research plans under those broad goals, NBCC hosted two summits. The summit participants included representatives of basic science, clinical research, health care, advocacy, industry, government and others with expertise ranging from anthropology to virology. The goal was to identify and prioritize the questions to be answered for both issues and recommend who should be at the table to do so. Today, we released a two-page update on our progress with the Artemis Project.

In the area of primary prevention, the Artemis Project has established a path forward for the creation of a preventive vaccine. We have funded seed grants to (1) identify as targets potential viruses and antigens that could lead to the development of breast cancer and (2) develop better ways to define subsets of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) to see if this would show us a path to prevention.

Advocates have surveyed the scientific literature to determine potential protein targets for vaccine development, and candidate proteins have been selected by the Artemis team for inclusion in a preventive vaccine. An international team of scientists, together with advocates, are developing the experimental protocols to create the vaccine and gather the preclinical safety and efficacy data that will be necessary for FDA approval. And now we can report that Artemis participants are ready to begin preclinical work on the preventive vaccine.

In the effort to prevent metastasis, two years ago, NBCC launched a second Artemis Project modeled on the preventive vaccine project and focused on tumor dormancy to address the overarching question of how to end deaths from breast cancer. We have begun to identify how the immune system interacts with dormant tumor cells. And we are working with partners to create a database containing genomic and clinical data from patients with breast cancer.

The scientists who volunteer to work with us on Artemis tell us they do so because we are asking them to be bold and to answer big questions that will help save lives. They have the opportunity to collaborate with others from many different institutions, countries and disciplines -- researchers and advocates they would not otherwise meet. And they love being a part of something that could have huge impact. They get to envision a different way of doing science and to work side-by-side with survivors.

These are all steps in the right direction, but we have much more work to do. We need more trained advocates at the research table, and we need more funding for the right kind of research -- research that asks the bold questions and research designed to find answers through collaboration, focused on the right goal: ending breast cancer. To meet our bold goal of knowing how to end breast cancer by January 1, 2020, we need to give the Artemis Project the resources it needs to continue this important work. Learn more about how you can help prevent breast cancer -- and prevent breast cancer from taking more lives -- by visiting our website.