Cancer’s Next Great Hope

February 18, 2014 11:30 am Cancer's Next Great Hope

Call it cancer’s thumbprint. It’s the indelible, one-of-a-kind signature found in the DNA of every cancer patient. And it’s not only the catalyst to unlocking personalized treatment options and improved outcomes, but it’s also the key to predicting the risk of getting certain cancers altogether.

“For years, we diagnosed a patient’s cancer by location and stage,” says Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of The James, “but now we’re looking at that ‘thumbprint’ – the very DNA of a tumor, so we can predict and create the most effective treatment path for each specific person.”

Even if two people are diagnosed with the same kind of cancer, DNA differences mean that, while one person may respond well to a treatment, it may not work for the other.

“So now,” Caligiuri explains, “the diagnosis includes what we call molecular or genomic testing – looking at that patient’s genes and saying, ‘How is this person’s cancer different from that person’s, and how do we gear the therapy so that they both have a positive response?’”

Because no cancer is routine, genomic testing is critical. “If we can predict which chemotherapy is going to work, we can better ‘right-size’ the therapy,” Caligiuri says. That means markedly better outcomes for patients.

What’s more, because side effects are also a big part of cancer therapy, experts examining a tumor’s DNA can prescribe a drug that targets only the tumor and not the normal cells, so side effects can be drastically reduced or even potentially eliminated, vastly improving a patient’s quality of life.

But there’s still more encouraging news. Scientists are also able to study normal DNA, and predict who’s going to get certain kinds of cancer, and determine what behaviors should be avoided (or engaged in) with regard to diet, exercise and environmental exposures.

For example, all newly diagnosed colorectal cancer patients at The James and their biological relatives are screened for Lynch syndrome, which is characterized by inherited mutations in certain genes, that increase one’s risk of colon, ovarian and uterine cancer. Individuals who carry the genetic trait can then be screened more frequently in hopes of preventing cancer. (In fact, through an initiative supported by Pelotonia funding, more than 40 hospitals across Ohio have joined forces to screen for this gene, revealing others who are at higher risk of developing these cancers so they can take precautionary measures.

“There is no such thing as a routine cancer or even a routine tumor,” Caligiuri says. “So to have a tool like genomic testing – to be able to examine each person’s tumor at the molecular level – that really is cancer’s next great hope. That’s what will propel us even closer to a cancer-free world.”

To learn more, watch the Cancer’s Next Great Hope segment of Toward a Cancer-Free World.

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