Did you know there are more than 100 different types of cancer that can affect the human body? Has your doctor told you that particular tumors grow in specific organs and systems, or that various genetic mutations lead to different forms of cancer?
The truth is that cancer is far from being one single disease. Rather, it is a multifaceted disorder that affects the human genome. That being the case, shouldn’t the treatment be as diverse as the ailment? After all, a physician doesn’t use the same vaccine for different strands of the flu. Why should healthcare professionals use the same drugs to treat distinct forms of cancer?
In spite of the complex biological reality, the healthcare profession still relies heavily on a standardized chemotherapy regimen designed to target malignant cells indiscriminately, regardless of variation or location.
Thankfully, there is hope that a better solution may be within reach. Precision medicine, the process of tailoring medication to each individual patient rather than administering a systemic drug cocktail, increasingly looks like a more viable alternative.
Personalized cancer treatment involves gathering information about the specific genetic alterations driving a particular tumor so a doctor or surgeon can provide more targeted therapy.
The advantages are manifold—higher rates of success, fewer side effects, and less serious complications. By matching the right medication to the right patient (or, rather, matching the right drug to the right tumor), the treating physician has a greater chance of reducing the size of the cancerous growth and preventing recurrence.
In order to realize the benefits, a doctor must first gather the correct information about an individual’s tumor. That means sequencing or analyzing the genome of the cancer cells. Only then can the physician focus on the particular molecular pathway disruptions that result from specific mutations.
Thus far, research has been encouraging. The preliminary results of one trial conducted by the
University of California, San Diego School of Medicine's Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy, for example, showed that precision treatment offered superior results to traditional chemotherapy.
Not only was targeted drug therapy more than six times more effective at shrinking tumors (a 31 percent shrinkage rate compared to a 5 percent shrinkage rate), but patients stayed cancer-free for a longer period of time. Evidence also suggests that precision treatment is less harmful; namely, that it tends to spare normal cells the devastating impacts of toxic drugs.1
Precision cancer treatments hold great promise, but they are not yet ready to replace conventional chemotherapy. As of yet, only certain types of tumors are treatable. In addition, personalized medications can be prohibitively expensive, since it takes both time and money to conduct a full genomic analysis of each individual’s cancer.
There is hope, however, that as the cost of DNA sequencing goes down, the availability of personalized cancer treatment will go up. If that happens, the world may finally be able to herald a true medical revolution.
To learn more about Weill Cornell’s dedication to cutting-edge cancer research, or to find a physician, visit our website.