Cancer Research UK has started recruiting patients for a pioneering initiative to demonstrate how genetic tests could be used within the NHS to help match cancer patients to the most appropriate treatment, while building a database of information for research into new targeted therapies.
The charity’s multi-million pound Stratified Medicine Programme ultimately aims to establish a world-class NHS genetic testing service for cancer patients in the UK. This means that, as and when new targeted treatments become available, doctors will have access to the tests they need to help them decide which drugs are best for their patients.
Medical staff in seven of Cancer Research UK’s existing Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs) will be asking up to 9,000 patients to participate in the first phase of the Programme, which covers six different tumour types: breast, bowel, lung, prostate, ovarian and melanoma skin cancer.
The ECMCs are: The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, Leeds, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester, collectively covering more than 20 hospitals across the UK.
Patients will be asked to give consent for a small sample of their tumour to be sent to one of three leading NHS genetic testing labs – based at The Institute for Cancer Research in London, Cardiff All Wales Regional Molecular Genetics Laboratory and the West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory in Birmingham – where DNA will be extracted and analysed for a range of molecular faults linked to cancer.
This information will be stored alongside other relevant clinical information to allow researchers to compare the success of different treatments in relation to specific faults within cancer cells.
So although the Programme will not alter patients’ treatment at this stage, it’s hoped it could help scientists design better targeted treatments in the future.
Wendy Payne, 55, who is being treated at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, is one of 240 patients who are so far taking part in the programme. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in March 2011 after a CT scan.
Mrs Payne said: “I was very keen to take part in the Stratified Medicine Programme because I think much more can and should be done to help patients get the right drugs in future.
“Finding out I had cancer was terrifying but it’s incredible to think that the tumour which could have killed me can now be used to develop more targeted drugs in future. Even though I won’t benefit from that research, it’s comforting to think that my experience with cancer will be helping others who are diagnosed in future.”
Cancer Research UK, AstraZeneca and Pfizer are funding the £5.5 million programme. The charity’s share is being funded through its Catalyst Club – a pioneering venture to raise £10 million to propel forward the use of personalised cancer treatment, including Cancer Research UK’s Stratified Medicine Programme.
The initiative is closely aligned with the government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB)’s £6 million investment in the development of tests for analysing a tumour’s genetic profile and secure software that can link this information to relevant clinical information.
James Peach, director of Cancer Research UK’s Stratified Medicine Programme, said: “In the ten years since the Human Genome Project was completed we’ve made huge progress in unraveling the genetic basis of cancer and understanding what drives it at a molecular level. We know that prescribing certain drugs according to the genetic basis of the tumour can improve the chances of successful treatment. And by hardwiring research into the day-to-day care of cancer patients, we can harness the power of the NHS to bring personalised medicine a step closer to reality.
“This programme marks the beginning of the journey, and there is much to be done before we can bring the benefits of personalised medicine to every cancer patient. But I’m confident that within the next few years we’ll see personalised medicine changing the face of cancer treatment and saving many more lives from cancer.”
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Stratified medicine involves using diagnostic tests (such as genetic testing) to identify groups of patients whose cancers have similar characteristics that may indicate what kind of treatments will work best for them – such as the use of HER2 testing before prescribing Herceptin for breast cancer. This is one step towards ‘personalised medicine’, where treatments are tailored for individual patients according to the specific characteristics of their cancer.