In 1948, researchers recruited more than 5,200 men and women between 40 and 62 years of age from a tiny Massachusetts town. The idea was to track participants over many decades to see whether different aspects of their lives (from health conditions to lifestyle choices) influenced their chances of developing heart disease.
COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Volunteer ambassador Jeannette Vatter (right), pictured with Courtney Allen,
communications advisor encourages others to join The Tomorrow Project.
The Framingham Heart Study was revolutionary. By tracking many participants over decades, researchers were able to identify different risk factors – a term they coined – for heart disease. Among the many discoveries to come out of the study was the link between high blood pressure and stroke. Doctors can now treat their patients for high blood pressure, advise at-risk patients to adopt healthier habits and potentially save lives.
This approach to research is invaluable for understanding and preventing cancer, too. That’s why the Alberta Cancer Foundation supports The Tomorrow Project, a long-term study that will ultimately follow 50,000 people from across the province.
“We know that one in two people in Alberta will develop cancer sometime in their lifetime and we need to keep that figure from getting any higher,” explains Dr. Paula Robson, the project’s principal investigator.
She explains that large numbers of participants are critical for getting an accurate picture of the causes of cancer. “Because we have many sorts of cancer, we need to recruit many people to ensure we have enough information to tell us, with statistical significance, what’s going on,” says Robson.
The study began in 2001 and asked 30,000 Albertans to answer questionnaires about their lifestyles and health histories. In 2008, The Tomorrow Project joined with several other provinces to create a national study on cancer risk factors. Eventually, about 300,000 volunteers and 50 researchers will partake in this pan-Canadian research effort.
Now, researchers have to ask the initial respondents to consent to being in a national study and must attract almost twice as many people as originally planned. Fortunately, a number of volunteer ambassadors are helping get the word out in urban and rural communities across the province.
These people have generally been touched by cancer in some way and feel passionate about research and prevention, explains Robson. “We love our volunteer ambassadors because they believe in what the project is doing,” she says. “That real personal belief and passion really speaks to people.”
Jeannette Vatter, a “full-time volunteer” in Drayton Valley who lost many close friends to cancer, happily registered for the study in 2001 after her doctor mentioned it. This spring, she signed up as a volunteer ambassador to encourage others in her small town southwest of Edmonton to partake. “Word of mouth is always the best advertising,” she says.
As an active member of several organizations in town, Vatter is well connected in her community. “I’ve had a very positive response everywhere I’ve talked about it,” she says. “When you say, ‘This could help your future children, grandchildren and your own quality of life down the road,’ that builds enthusiasm.”
It’s an easy sell, she says, since The Tomorrow Project requires such a small investment of time. At minimum, participants can fill out a questionnaire. Those willing to go one step further need only spend an hour at a study centre, where blood and urine samples, or saliva and measurements (including height, weight and blood pressure) are taken. Edmonton and Calgary have permanent study centres and the research team set up mobile centres in places like Drayton Valley, Lethbridge and Red Deer, among others.
The Tomorrow Project’s mobile study centres will continue to make their rounds across the province. “We think it’s important to give as many Albertans as possible a chance to participate in the project,” says Robson. With some help from volunteer ambassadors in these communities, she’s confident the visits will continue to draw crowds. Robson notes that over the course of just four days, 250 people registered with The Tomorrow Project during its Red Deer stop in June.
Just as The Tomorrow Project requires community support to produce the data, it will support an entire community of researchers from around Alberta and beyond. It will also be useful to researchers working on a host of other diseases, since the study has been designed to examine many facets of participants’ health.
While the data have already supported university research, the value of this kind of study increases dramatically over time. Robson points to the Framingham study, which fueled just 15 academic papers between 1950 and 1960, and a whopping 902 between 2000 and 2010.
“This kind of study takes a lot of people, time and effort,” says Robson, “but the value of it is absolutely phenomenal.