The discovery of a new, more precise approach to treating cancer is giving patients access to more safe and effective options for combatting the disease.

The approach, called personalized medicine, refers to an evolving field in which physicians use diagnostic tests to determine which medical treatments will work best for each patient. By combining the data from those tests with an individual’s medical history, circumstances and values, health care providers can develop targeted treatment and prevention plans.

Personalized medicine delivered more new treatments in 2017 than ever before.

New treatments

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for ensuring that medical treatments marketed to doctors and patients are safe and effective, approved 46 new molecular entities (NMEs) — new drugs, agents or therapeutic biologics — in 2017. Of the 46, the Personalized Medicine Coalition classified a record number 16 of them as personalized medicines. Some of the approved cancer treatments include Kisqali (ribociclib), for the treatment of certain forms of breast cancer, Bavencio (avelumab) for the treatment of metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma, Alunbrig (brigatinib) for the treatment of certain forms of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, and Rydapt (midostaurin) for the treatment of certain forms of acute myeloid leukemia.

These treatments offer new, more effective treatment options to some cancer patients, and may help patients avoid severe side effects associated with standard treatments like chemotherapy.

But they are only part of the story.

Gene therapies

In addition to the 16 NMEs, FDA also approved the first so-called “gene therapies” last year. Gene therapies involve the transplantation of new genes into cells. Two of the newly approved gene therapies are designed to re-engineer the genes in a patient’s immune cells to destroy cancerous cells. These treatments, too, may offer safer and more effective alternatives to chemotherapy for some patients.

FDA also made Keytruda, a treatment that helps a patient’s immune system recognize and destroy cancerous cells, available to patients with any type of cancer that involves certain genetic characteristics.

Finally, new diagnostics that can simultaneously test for many genes that drive cancer are increasingly becoming available. FDA authorized several of these tests in 2017, including the Oncomine Target Test, which examines 23 cancer-related genes; the FoundationOne CDx, which examines 324 cancer-related genes; and the MSK-IMPACT panel, which examines 468 cancer-related genes. The use of these tests can help patients quickly get to the safest, most effective treatment available to them.

These developments demonstrate how personalized medicine is capitalizing on the genetic science driving cancer to give us new tools to combat many forms of the disease.