In 2001, there was a significant development in cancer care: the approval of a drug targeted at a genetic alteration that is common in a type of leukemia.  This new drug, Gleevec, taken as a pill, gave hope to people who, until then, often had only months to live on standard therapies. Many of those same patients who took Gleevec are still alive today. 

Recent findings

Indeed, the 21st century has seen acceleration in the development of such targeted drugs, and today there are more than 50 targeted cancer drugs that have been approved by the FDA.

In a complementary development, scientists have been able to identify more of the genetic modifications that drive many different types of cancers. Researchers have also developed laboratory tests that can scan the entire genome to see the genetic alterations in a person’s tumor. These types of studies are increasingly showing that cancers at many different sites in the body are driven by similar genetic changes.

A new solution

Experts are now starting to match the growing library of genetic alterations with drugs that target those alterations so that patients can receive the most effective therapies. This should increase a patient’s chance of getting better while also avoiding treatment with drugs that are not likely to work for them.

" The investment of taxpayer dollars funded this major initiative over the past decade, which decoded many of the genetic mutations found in over 30 different types of cancer."

The National Cancer Institute has just launched a major clinical trial to see how patients fare when treated with drugs that are matched to genetic alterations in their tumors, regardless of the type of tumor for which the drug was developed.

Funding a resource

Much of the progress in reliably identifying mutations that are treatable in patients would not have been possible if not for public funding. The investment of taxpayer dollars funded this major initiative over the past decade, which decoded many of the genetic mutations found in over 30 different types of cancer. 

The Cancer Genome Atlas, also known as TCGA for the four building blocks of DNA, is the foundation on which much of today’s advances in our genetic understanding of many types of cancers are based. This public database will be available to researchers for generations to come, as experts will be able to mine and use TCGA resources as they develop the therapies that everyone hopes will greatly reduce the burden of cancer worldwide in the 21st century.