By Kate Lunau - Thursday, October 7, 2010 - 0 Comments
Researchers are working on a more individual approach to each tumour
This summer, Vancouver cancer researchers announced a medical first. Presented with an extremely rare case of tongue cancer—it was so unusual there were no standard treatments to use—they sequenced the DNA of the patient’s tumour, and discovered similarities with another cancer (renal cell carcinoma, a type of kidney cancer) for which there’s a known therapy. The patient received drugs tailored to these results, and the cancer stopped growing for several months. Steven Jones, a molecular biologist with the B.C. Cancer Agency Genome Sciences Centre and one of two lead researchers on the study, calls it a breakthrough. It isn’t standard in hospitals to genetically sequence a patient’s tumour, but “the goal would be, maybe in 10 years, this would be routine,” he says.
Dr. Leif Ellisen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is working to bring tumour genotyping from the lab into the clinic. He and a team have designed a system that can screen relatively large numbers of patients for a variety of mutations across different cancer genes. These genetic mutations are a tumour’s “Achilles’ heel,” noted a recent editorial in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine. “Every tumour has a flaw,” says Ellisen, who’ll be discussing his work as part of the Scienta Health Series in Toronto on Oct. 7, and his goal is to find it.
It’s the mantra of a growing number of researchers, who tout personalized medicine—treatments tailored to each individual—as the future of cancer care. Traditionally, cancer treatment “has been one-size-fits all,” Ellisen says. “If it’s breast cancer, you treat it one way; if it’s lung cancer, you treat it another.” The downside is that costly drugs are administered to patients, sometimes with harmful side effects and no real promise they’ll work. “The treatment needs to be tailored to the individual characteristics of the patient and, we’re learning now, the characteristics of the tumour,” he says. Cancers are typically classified by the organs where they arise, but it’s possible that a breast cancer and a lung cancer, for example, might share a genetic abnormality. As a result, they might even respond to the same treatment.