Cancer is usually identified by the place where it appears on the body, for example, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, skin cancer. We know that each type of cancer is different, that is you don’t treat skin cancer in the same way that you treat breast cancer. But, even when the treatment is targeted to a specific type of cancer, it doesn’t always work.
Recent research has shown us that the same general type of cancer can have many different mutations, and, if experts believe that these different gene mutations might hold the key to more effectively treating cancer. That means, rather than classifying cancer based on its location, it might be better to classify it according to the gene mutation. By breaking cancer down to the DNA of the patient, treatment becomes targeted. This has been used in medicine to treat cancer, for example, Matthew Harper, in Forbes Magazine, tells the story of a cancer patient who had DNA sequencing done for a tumor in her bowel. After the results, she was treated with a medication usually used for lung cancer – and the tumor shrank.
This idea is exactly what Patrick Soon-Shiong wants to accomplish. Soon-Shiong is a billionaire doctor who is trying to create the largest DNA database that can be shared around the world. He has developed programs and equipment that can evaluate and provide DNA sequencing quickly (in a matter of hours) and then compare it to a database of DNA mutations to determine the right treatment. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Soon Shiong says, “And for the first time with this technology we can watch it, outsmart it and play chess at this multi-dimensional level.” He believes that reclassifying cancer and giving everyone a targeted treatment isn’t far off, “I’m incredibly encouraged to say that we are on the path. And the technology to actually do all these things in not just hypothetical.”
Other researchers are working on the same theory. Cancer research, in recent years, has shown that DNA sequencing is the way to go. Many are trying to do the same thing as Soon-Shiong. The Genome Institute at Washington University have been working with DNA sequencing technology to create individualized treatments and monitor response to treatment. Researchers at the Broad Institute are doing the same thing for thyroid cancer. The research is being combined into the Cancer Genome Atlas so doctors have information on genetic mutations on many different subtypes of cancer in one place.
Soon-Shiong, however, is moving forward on making the technology work for everyone, often using his own money to fund companies and projects. He doesn’t need to rely on grants and has the money to hire the best computer scientists to make his dream a reality. While others are working on the same concepts, none are doing so on the scale and with the speed of Soon-Shiong.
One day soon, when diagnosed with skin cancer, you could not only have a biopsy but also DNA sequencing to determine exactly the makeup of your cancer. And, despite a diagnosis of skin cancer, your doctors might find treatments not typically used for skin cancer can help. One day soon, cancer treatment might be revolutionized and, as Dr. Soon-Shiong says, become a chronic condition you can live with rather than a deadly disease.
Published On: December 09, 2014