New era of personalized cancer treatment: a major breakthrough in care

17 August 2010

MSFHR Senior Scholars Drs. Steven Jones (2008) and Marco Marra (2006) are among the researchers celebrating new success in personalized medicine. Published this month in the journal Genome Biology, the research focuses on a rare tumour of the tongue that had metastasized in one patient, and for which no established treatment options existed.

Using advanced DNA sequencing techniques developed at the BC Cancer Agencies Genome Science Centre, the researchers genetically decoded the tumour, and were then able to recommend a previously unconsidered treatment that stabilized the cancer for several months. This genetic sequencing technique enabled clinicians to differentiate the genes that were likely specific to the tumour, from those genes involved in the tongue’s normal cellular processes.

“[This work] ushers in the era of personalized medicine in oncology, whereby therapies will be tailored precisely to the genetic make-up of the tumour,” says Jones, associate director of the Genome Sciences Centre and professor, Simon Fraser University. “I anticipate that in the not too distant future nearly all patient tumours will be characterized in this way as a matter of course.”

This work is the first published example of genome-scale DNA and RNA (similar to DNA) sequencing of a tumour to advance clinical decision-making and therapeutic choice. While still in the preliminary stage, this approach is invaluable in attacking rare tumours, for which there are no established treatment protocols.

Director, BC Cancer Agency Genome Sciences Centre and professor, University of British Columbia Marco Marra says “The advancements in DNA sequencing, and the significant decreases in the cost of sequencing, are such that we can begin to contemplate clinical applications of the technology. A clear potential benefit to patients is the opportunity to consider new approaches to treatment.”

Funding for the research was provided by the provincial government, the B.C. Cancer Foundation, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Genome B.C., Genome Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute.

Dr. Marco Marra is an MSFHR 2006 Senior Scholar, and Dr. Steven Jones is an MSFHR 2008 Senior Scholar.