On Sunday, Professor Paul Workman talked about personalised medicine. And on Monday we heard more about this “unparalleled time of opportunity for cancer drug development,” from Johann de Bono of The Institute of Cancer Research.
Chairing a session called ‘Getting personal in anticancer drug development’, Professor de Bono went on to add that “the current paradigm is tumour type, organ-based treatment. Might the future look like this – where treatment for all cancers is based on the genetic signature of a cancer, not the organ affected?”.
The more we understand about the molecules involved in cancer, the more avenues become open to us to explore new possibilities for treating the disease. One researcher tackling this area is Professor Caroline Dive, who runs the Cancer Research UK-funded Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology Group at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester.
She and her team are working to find new biomarkers – molecules that can be used to track and monitor cancer. Professor Dive presented fascinating new research about how tracking the cells and DNA that have escaped from a patient’s cancer into their blood system could be used as a way to monitor a patient’s response to a new cancer treatment – as she explains in this short video.
Professor Dive and her team have been investigating blood samples from bowel cancer patients whose tumours have a fault in a gene called K-Ras, meaning they are less likely to respond to a drug called cetuximab. The researchers have found that cancer cells and DNA in the bloodstream provides an accurate reflection of how the tumour is behaving.
This means that doctors don’t have to take a sample from the actual tumour – an invasive and uncomfortable procedure. Although these are only results from a small number of patients, if it holds true for more people then the blood test could become part of routine clinical practice.
Professor Dive has also been testing this technique in lung cancer and, so far, her results are extremely promising – she described it as “a revolution coming in lung cancer from [tissue] characterisation to molecular characterisation of the disease”.
She has recently joined forces with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to analyse thousands of samples from the company’s global clinical trials – information that will be invaluable for researchers figuring out how the genetic makeup of a tumour affects its response to treatment.
Professor Dive’s work opens up the possibility that, one day in the not too distant future, cancer patients could be spared invasive biopsies, as scientists monitor and react to their disease by studying stray cancer cells in blood samples.
Josephine Querido is a senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK