The treatment breakthrough could make people six times more likely to survive
Leading experts attending the world’s biggest cancer conference in Chicago are hailing the incredible precision medicine breakthrough as the “future of cancer treatment”. A revolutionary new DNA treatment technique makes you six times more likely to beat cancer.
One said: “It’s the most exciting thing since chemotherapy.”
At the moment, the vast majority of the 300,000 Brits diagnosed with cancer each year are given the standard treatment for the part of the body where they have the disease.
The groundbreaking new technique involves having a simple £200 DNA test of your tumour first.
The new treatment involves a £200 DNA test
This then tells doctors precisely which drugs or therapies are most suited to you – rather than relying on the standard treatment.
The genetic profiling of your tumour can also tell doctors which drugs you should avoid because they either won’t help you or are likely to give you worse side effects than others might suffer.
Precision medicine studies being presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting are expected to show unprecedented results.
A Brit is one of the first patients in the world to benefit from precision medicine.
Read more: Thousands of cancer patients can DOUBLE their survival chances with new treatment
Remarkably, he is still alive six years after he had his tumour DNA tested. The results helped doctors to hand pick the perfect drug for Ian Liston.
One study of 13,000 patients taking part in early clinical trials of drugs found those undergoing genetic testing of their tumours before any treatment – so that they could then be given targeted therapies instead of standard drugs – were an astonishing six times more likely to see their tumours shrink or disappear altogether.
It is the first large-scale analysis of precision medicine treatments.
Rowena Sharpe, head of precision medicine at Cancer Research UK, described it as “a very, very different way of treating patients. It’s the most exciting thing since chemotherapy.”
She said that it was “about using reliable technology to better treat patients” and “giving the patient the most appropriate choice”. She added:
“We don’t want to treat them with a drug that isn’t going to do anything.”
Read more: Breast cancer’s ‘Achilles heel’ discovered by scientists which could stop disease in its tracks
Prof Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Centre in the US, said precision medicine was “about finding the right key for the lock, finding out what it is that is driving the tumour, what makes it tick”.
Explaining why it is different to current treatments, he added: “At the moment, it is informed guesswork, so that treatment often doesn’t work for large numbers of patients. I believe the potential of precision medicine is huge.”
The University of California, San Diego School of Medicine study to be presented in Chicago pooled the results of around 350 early-stage clinical trials involving 13,203 patients.
Researchers found that tumours in patients who received targeted treatments after undergoing DNA tumour tests had shrinkage rates of 30.6%, compared with 4.9% in those who did not.
It suggests patients are six times more likely to beat cancer than those receiving the standard treatments.
Those on targeted treatments also lived longer without their disease progressing.
Lead study author Maria Schwaederle, of the University of California, San Diego, said: “Our study suggests that, with a precision medicine approach, we can use a patient’s individual tumour biomarkers to determine whether they are likely to benefit from a particular therapy.
“This strategy often results in good outcomes for patients.”
Commenting on the study findings, Prof Johann de Bono, head of drug development at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: “What this means is that if you just give treatment based on a best guess, where you don’t look at the genomics, the chances of benefit are less than 5%.
“This means the tumour shrinks and the patient will, usually, live longer.
But the data shows that when you can deliver a targeted treatment after DNA testing, ie precision medicine, the chances go up to over 30%.”
Dr Alan Worsley, of Cancer Research UK, added: “This shows that precision treatments really do work.
“It confirms what we hoped. As this analysis proves, this approach has a real impact on patients.”
All cancer patients should now undergo genetic testing of their tumours in order to boost survival and avoid unnecessary, gruelling treatments, experts say.
Some treatments already hone in on specific biological pathways to stop cancer growing.
For instance in breast cancer, there are treatments that are guided by biomarkers like Herceptin.
However, these use proteins as biomarkers to group breast cancers into fairly broad categories.
The new precision medicine approach scans the DNA of tumours for genetic biomarkers.
This can then enable treatment that is more precise to the patient, or personalised.
At the moment, there is no widespread use of precision medicine outside of clinical trials, and it is not widely available on the NHS.
Prof de Bono said the tumour testing involved extracting DNA from tumours either via biopsies or blood tests and then putting the sample through a sequencing machine.
The cost of tests can vary from £200 for targeted DNA sequencing of a couple of genes, up to around £3,000 for a more comprehensive analysis.
But Prof de Bono stressed things were “changing very quickly” and precision medicine was already having an impact for some cancers including prostate, ovarian, breast, lung and bowel.
He added: “People are living longer as result of precision medicine, and receiving less toxic treatment.”
The new approach means patients could be spared chemotherapy if the DNA profile of their tumour biopsy shows it will be of no benefit to them.
Highly-targeted drugs aimed at bringing the cancer under control can also be selected rather than relying on “guesswork” or a “one size fits all” approach.
Prof de Bono said it was an “exciting time in the field” with “major benefits for patients”.
He added: “What patients need to be aware of, is that we can now look at their tumour by genomic testing and if we identify what we call, actionable genomic aberrations, that we can use that to decide what drug to give the patient.
“It’s no longer just thinking about whether the cancer has come from the breast or the bowel or the lung.”
The precision medicine approach is part of a transition away from treating cancer based on specific organs.
Instead, it focuses on the defective genes driving the disease, and uses that information to determine which drugs, or combinations of drugs, could best attack specific biological targets on tumours.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said:
“Personalised medicine represents the future of cancer treatment. With recent discoveries we are now well on the way towards this exciting new era.”
ASCO spokesman Dr Don Dizon went further, saying: “Precision medicine is not the future of cancer care, it is the present.
“This study reinforces that the more we personalise treatment to the patient and the tumour, the better the outcomes.”
Baroness Morgan added: “Making these medicines available to all that could benefit is the critical next step.”
Prof Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “We hope that tailoring cancer treatments to match a patient’s tumour will mean we are able to select the best, most effective drugs and accurately monitor their success.
“Cancer Research UK is investing heavily into research on targeted tests and treatments, particularly for lung and bowel cancer to help ensure the NHS is ready and able to adopt these new approaches to diagnose and treat cancer.”