Advanced genetic technologies mean new DNA-based approaches to treating patients. The cancer medical community was one of the first to embrace this approach, and now tailored treatments based on a patient’s genetic information are getting close to mainstream use.
Doctors have understood for years that not all cancers were the same, but it wasn’t until advanced genetic technologies became available in the last decade that the oncology community was able to begin classifying tumors by their genetic traits, rather than where they formed. Ongoing studies continue to detail specific genetic groupings of cancer, and each subtype offers scientists a far more precise target than something as vague as “breast cancer.” Subtyping has already enabled more effective treatment selections for many kinds of cancer and will likely improve over time.
One of the biggest challenges in treating cancer is the inherent limitation of testing one therapy at a time on any given patient. The use of avatars, or organisms such as fruit flies that scientists engineer to mirror a patient’s specific form of cancer, overcomes this limitation. Avatars can be treated with a wide range of therapies to see which work best against the patient’s exact form of cancer, and that information can be used to guide patient care.
This advance makes it possible to measure the effects of many therapies — even those not designed to treat cancer — on a tumor. For this approach, cancer cells are collected from a patient and grown in a lab, where they can be barraged with a battery of medications. Cell screening makes it possible to test combinations of drugs more easily, which is important since combination therapies may be better at preventing cancer recurrence.
Wouldn’t it be great if your own immune system could fight off cancer the way it does a common cold? Impressive new work in immunotherapy is based on that idea and has shown great promise in some early cases. Doctors take immune cells from cancer patients, treat them in a lab to beef up their natural tumor-killing ability, and inject them back into the patient. In the most dramatic cases, patients have been pronounced completely cancer-free after this treatment, but the concept is still in fairly early stages of development.