After facing death just eight months ago, a leukaemia cancer patient is in remission following treatment with a drug tested and approved only for advanced kidney cancer.
This is thanks to the findings of a complete and complex genetic sequence undertaken by researchers at the University of Washington.
The research team used a type of analysis that had never been done before: the patient’s cancer cells, his healthy cells and his RNA (a close chemical cousin to DNA) were all sequenced in order to discover a rogue gene working to spur the cancer’s growth.
The patient, a cancer researcher himself – Dr Lukas Wartman – had been diagnosed with adult acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and was deteriorating quickly. But this study revealed a particular gene which was releasing large and unusual amounts of a protein that encourages cell growth.
A therapy which had been tested and approved for kidney cancer was identified as targeting that particular gene’s function, and so Dr Wartman became the first leukaemia patient to successfully undergo this new treatment.
Against the odds, Dr Wartman is now in remission and has been for some months.
Medical researchers say that this incredible story highlights the importance and relevance of genetic characteristics, compared to the tissue or organ driving a cancer.
It may mean that not only will one woman’s breast cancer have different genetic drivers from another woman’s but, it may have more in common with another patient’s lung cancer, or with prostate cancer in a man.
Large drug companies are reported to be commencing drug testing for treatments that specifically target a gene, rather than a tumour type.
Researchers have long been aware that a more individualised approach to cancer diagnosis and treatment is required to beat cancer, and this is evidence of a way forward.
The whole-genome sequencing process that these researchers used is in its infancy, and is also dauntingly complex and resource-heavy. However as more funding becomes available, and as the cost of sequencing machinery decreases, medical experts anticipate that genetic analyses of cancers will continue to play a significant role in the future of cancer research.
Source: ‘In treatment for leukemia, glimpses of the future’ – The New York Times, July 7, 2012