President, Personalized Medicine Coalition
When Richard Nixon launched the “War on Cancer” in 1971, cancer was thought of as one disease. Scientists and physicians knew that cancerous cells are genetically mutated, dysfunctional versions of human cells that arise in otherwise healthy patients. They also knew that the genetically mutated cells do not die off regularly to be replaced by younger cells as normal cells do. But they were unable to identify the exact genetic mutations that allow cancer cells to thrive in a human body.
For this reason, doctors treated most patients in the same way, often removing cancerous cells through surgery and seeking to destroy the remaining cancer cells using treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. In most cases, these standardized treatments proved woefully inadequate.
But over the last 15 years, scientists have identified some of the genetic features that make cancer cells different than healthy cells.
Scientists have also discovered that the genetic features of cancer cells in a human body often vary widely from patient to patient. This has given rise to the idea that what we refer to as cancer is not one but many diseases.
Thanks to these developments, more precise and effective cancer treatments are emerging. These treatments open the door to a new era of “personalized medicine.”
Personalized medicine — which is sometimes referred to as “precision medicine” — is an evolving field in which physicians use diagnostic tests to determine which medical treatments will work best for each individual patient. By combining the data from those tests with an individual’s medical history, circumstances and values, health care providers can develop targeted prevention and treatment plans.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now approved more than 40 personalized cancer medicines that target biological markers (“biomarkers”) expressed by cancer cells.
Several of the treatments zero in on genetic mutations, identifying them by testing cancer cells from a patient’s blood or tumor. The treatments destroy the cancerous cells that express the mutation while sparing the healthy cells that do not. These so-called “targeted therapies” — which are available for patients with lung, breast and blood cancers among others — are often the most appropriate treatment option for patients whose bodies contain cancer cells that express vulnerable genetic variations.
Some of the personalized treatments approved by FDA over the last year can even combat acute lymphoblastic leukemia in certain patients with only a few doses. The treatments modify a patient’s immune cells so that they are indefinitely capable of recognizing and destroying cells that express a cancer-related biomarker.
According to a study commissioned by the Personalized Medicine Coalition, more than 70 percent of cancer treatments now in development have the potential to become personalized medicines.
Continued support for biomedical research funding, appropriate regulation and reimbursement policies and the education of physicians and patients will help facilitate the move away from standard treatments and toward treatments that have a higher chance at containing cancer.
Edward Abrahams, President, Personalized Medicine Coalition, [email protected]