03/04/2015 10:39 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT

Cancer research project nears goal of signing up 50,000 participants

EDMONTON - A massive cancer research project in Alberta is on the verge of reaching its goal of having 50,000 participants involved.

The Tomorrow Project aims to follow participants between the ages of 35 and 69 for as long as fifty years to see if there are any lifestyle, genetic or other factors that lead to cancer.

Dr. Paula Robson says the idea is to look at all the information that people provide up until disease occurs.

Then they'll compare groups of people who’ve developed cancer versus those who didn’t to see if there are clues to the cause of the disease.

The hope is the information will lead to new strategies for prevention, early diagnosis and treatment.

Robson says they’re now able to put out a call for independent researchers if their data finds a spike in specific cancers based on postal codes to find out why it’s happening.

“We can start to match up where people live with various aspects of water quality, air quality, and it depends on the data that are out there but these are certainly things that we can do," she says. "Not on an individual level but on a group level.”

That possibility has also prompted the Tomorrow Project to look at a new way of thinking in their participant engagement strategy. They will advise participants if some risk factors become evident, as the study moves along.

“There have been suggestions in the past that you should not intervene, that this should be observational," says Robson. "The thinking is now developing to say if there is something there that we can absolutely say `you probably could reduce your risk if you did this,' I think it’s beholden on us to go back to the participants with that information.”

The project began signing up participants in 2001, and they’re now 500 short. They’ve called on groups to get involved and the Edmonton zone of Alberta Health Services paramedics are now taking part.

In 2008, the Tomorrow Project in Alberta joined British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada to form The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, a national study that has expanded its protocols to include the collection of more information necessary to better understand the causes of cancer and other diseases.

The national initiative is largely sponsored by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.

(CHED, The Canadian Press)