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Science takes a step closer to 'personalized' cancer therapy

Microscopic image of kidney carcinoma


The dream of "personalized" cancer therapy, in which patients are treated with drugs tailored to their individual genes, just got a little closer to reality.

Two research teams released a huge amount of data on different types of cancer cells and how a wide range of drugs act on them. The medical community is invited to freely use the online material for evaluating existing therapies and developing new ones. Summaries of the findings were also published in the journal Nature.

"This is a resource that will help facilitate the goal of figuring out the right drug for the right patient," said one of the lead researchers, Levi Garraway at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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That goal, if it can be achieved, would represent a big change from the way most cancers are treated. Patients are prescribed drugs without prior knowledge of how they will react. Chemotherapy, with a few exceptions, is a hit-and-miss affair.

But recent advances in genetics – including the ability to decode cancer genes – have raised hopes for a personalized approach to combatting the disease. Combining a better understanding of how drugs work with a detailed knowledge of a patient's type of cancer should lead to more targeted treatments.

And this release of genetic and drug data will hopefully speed up basic research in which anti-cancer agents are tested on malignant cells that have been removed from tumours and grown in a lab. (There are almost 1,200 commercially available cancer cell lines that represent the major cancer subtypes.)

One research team – which included the Broad Institute, Dana-Farber and the pharmaceutical firm Novartis – provided genetic and molecular profiles of 947 cell lines. Each cell line was subjected to 24 different anti-cancer drugs.

The other team – made up of researchers from Wellcome Trust, a British-based global charity, and Massachusetts General Hospital – profiled 639 cell lines and tested 130 drugs on them.

Taken together, these reports offer insights into the genetic and molecular reasons why some people respond to particular drugs but other don't.

Equally important, the data should improve patient selection for future clinical trials, said Mathew Garnett, a researcher at Wellcome Trust. "If we can identify patients who are most likely to benefit from a treatment … we are going to have more successful trials," he said. The end result could be many new drugs.

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Cancer, of course, remains an extremely complex disease. In a study published earlier this month in The New England Journal of Medicine, scientists warned that personalized therapy won't be easy to achieve because some tumours contain multiple genetic defects.

Even so, the wealth of new data released this week "provides highly useful resources for the generation and testing of hypotheses related to the grand goal of personalized cancer medicine," John Weinstein of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, wrote in a commentary in Nature.

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