Dr. Jennifer Vena, scientific director for Alberta’s Tomorrow Project (ATP), is excited about the huge potential of longitudinal studies in developing better cancer care.
ATP, a program that began in the year 2000 and continues to be supported by the generous donors of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, is the largest research study of its type to be conducted in the province. It is intended to follow the health of 55,000 men and women in Alberta over a 50-year period, collecting information via regular surveys as well as such things as blood, urine and saliva samples.
The primary goal of ATP is to develop a better understanding of the causes of a number of conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
“It’s not just a one-time data collection,” says Vena. “It’s really important to look at people over time and see how things change. That’s how you make conclusions.”
Vena says longitudinal studies can provide researchers with an invaluable bank of information.
“Fifty years ago, we didn’t know that smoking caused cancer,” she says. “But now, thanks to longitudinal studies like the Framingham Heart Study, we also now know about the link between smoking and heart disease, for example.”
“It’s really about creating a foundational data set that researchers can come to and use to create research questions,” adds Vena. “I’m hoping [with ATP] that we’ll be able to get better and better in terms of how we collect information — whether online or linking with other groups — and what we collect from our participants.”
Since 2008, ATP has been part of the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, a consortium of five regional studies from across the country that offers insight into geographical trends related to health and well-being.
It is important that the long-term focus of the study not only centres around people who do and do not develop cancer and other chronic conditions, but also around the various factors that could influence how a patient responds to different treatments, Vena says.
“Sometimes we think about diet and exercise only as a way to prevent disease completely,” she says. “I think that what’s becoming increasingly appreciated is that diet and exercise can also affect how you respond to treatment.”
As an example, Vena points to research that shows the healthier a patient is before going into a cancer treatment, the more likely the treatment will be successful. “People [should aim to] reduce their risk as much as possible,” she says. “We’re getting better at understanding how to do that.”
Vena explains that a key challenge in building on this understanding is trying to pinpoint the future questions of researchers. Both e-cigarettes and the legalization of marijuana — issues that weren’t even on the radar when the study began — have been identified as factors that could impact cancer and chronic disease risk, so ATP is collecting data on their use now and in the future.
“There are lots of really smart people doing really incredible work,” she says. “We can leverage everybody’s expertise.”