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Our Stratified Medicine Programme – two years on

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

31 May 2012

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Researcher looking at a DNA sequence

Read our update on the Stratified Medicine programme

In the not-too-distant future, most people treated for cancer (and many other diseases) will have some sort of genetic test performed on their cancer, to help their doctor decide which treatments are likely to work best. In fact, this ‘genetic revolution’ in medicine is already underway, and some hospitals already offer these tests when appropriate.

But this isn’t standardised across the health service – testing methods vary from centre to centre, and not everyone has access. On top of this, samples often have to be sent from one centre to another for testing, and the requests and results are often paper forms, meaning data has to be re-entered and can’t be automatically checked.

Clearly, this situation needs to change, and quickly. New ‘genetically targeted’ drugs are becoming available that can help patients whose cancers contain certain gene mutations, such as vemurafenib, which targets mutations in the BRAF gene, and which is licensed to treat people with melanoma.

So, in June 2010, we decided to lead the charge in preparing the UK’s NHS for this forthcoming era of genetic medicine. We put together an £18 million partnership – between the government, the NHS, pharma companies and ourselves – to streamline and standardise genetic testing of tumour samples across the UK’s health service.

The result was the Cancer Research UK Stratified Medicine programme, which enrolled its first patient just 18 months later. For full details of how the programme works in practice, read this blog post or watch the accompanying video.

But there have been several exciting developments in the six months since the first patient signed their consent form, so we thought it was time for an update.

Number of patients tested

By the end of April 2012, 2,622 patients had volunteered to take part in the programme, and so far, 815 sets of cancer gene test results have been analysed and returned to the patients’ doctors. 95 per cent of all patients approached to take part have agreed.

Although these gene tests are more a proof-of-concept than to guide active treatment, we’re now building up a sizable database of clinical and genetic data on patients’ tumours that’s set to become a valuable resource for UK researchers.

New clinical trials launched

As a direct result of this programme, we’re delighted that two pharmaceutical companies are looking to open new trials in the UK, drawing on data from the Stratified Medicine programme.

Roche will be testing their drug vemurafenib (licensed for melanoma with BRAF gene mutations) in patients with other forms of cancer, which also have the same BRAF mutations. And Bristol-Myers Squibb are seeking regulatory approval for another trial.

This is fantastic news, and shows how – as well as making new, promising drugs available to UK cancer patients – investing in NHS infrastructure encourages further economic investment from industry. This is particularly important given the UK’s current financial situation.

And – even more important – a healthy research environment underpins  improvements in treatment and survival.

Cutting edge IT infrastructure

We’re also working with software giant Oracle, along with our Informatics Advisory Board of data experts, to improve the way data from the programme can be analysed.

As a result, we’ll be using Oracle Health Sciences Translational Research Center to further refine the way we and our partners can use the Stratified Medicine data.

International expertise

And finally, we’re now helping organisations in other countries to set up similar programmes. We’ve been sharing what we’ve learnt so far with senior staff from the Australian, French and Norwegian health services, and are in preliminary discussions with other countries too.

It’s a source of huge pride to us here at Cancer Research UK that this initiative is being seen as one of the best in the world – and our Stratified Medicines team have been invited to present their work to one of the biggest events in the cancer research calendar: the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference. We wish them well on their trip across the pond.