October is Cancer Awareness Month. Thousands of cancer survivors are celebrating more “Birthdays” and know they are blessed to have benefited from advancements in personalized cancer medicine and treatment. We should applaud scientists, researchers and cancer medical specialists for their relentless drive to find cures and treatments for all types of cancer. And don’t forget the brave volunteers with cancer who step up for cancer clinical trials, so scientists can learn in real time how to target drugs and cancer treatment more precisely for racially diverse populations—you are true HEROES!
—Ruth Ramsey, Publisher, Our Health Matters
How cancer treatment is improving
You are probably hearing a lot about “personalized medicine.” What exactly does that mean? Personalized medicine uses information about a person’s own genes or proteins to prevent, diagnose or treat disease. For example in cancer, personalized medicine uses specific information about a person’s tumor to help make a diagnosis, plan treatment, find out how well treatment is working, or make a prognosis (forecast or likely outcome). Genes are the information that tells the cells in your body how to grow and develop. Many cancers affect or involve specific genes.
Personalized cancer medicine can have fewer side effects than other types of treatment because it is designed to be more targeted. This method of personalized treatment may affect healthy cells less and cells involved in cancer more. It also helps in predicting how likely the cancer is to come back. Doctors call this “risk of recurrence.”
How personalized medicine is changing cancer treatment
Before personalized medicine, people with the same type of cancer usually got the same treatment. Over time, doctors noticed the treatments worked better for some people than others. Researchers began finding genetic differences in people and their cancers. These differences explained a great deal about why cancers responded differently to the same treatment.
Today, you may still have the usual treatment for your type and stage of cancer. However, your doctor may personalize it based on information about your genes and the cancer’s genes.
Ronald C. Chen, MD, MPH
Chair, Radiation Oncologist
The University of Kansas Health System
Advances in precision and personalized medicine continue to benefit prostate cancer patients. Prostate cancer patients can now have sophisticated genomic tests to more accurately determine the aggressiveness of their prostate cancer. This information can help the patient understand his prognosis, or likely course or outcome of a disease. It has the potential to help him and his doctor make the best treatment decision.
Advances in medical technology are another important way precision medicine is helping prostate cancer patients. Radiologic technology continues to help physicians to better see exactly where the cancer is in the body. Likewise, radiation treatment, such as proton therapy, also continues to become more accurate in targeting tumors. These advances will lead to higher cure rates and reduced side effects for patients with prostate and other cancers.
Cancers identified for targeted therapy
Targeted therapy treats specific genes and proteins that allow a certain cancer to grow and survive. Researchers find new targets for more cancers each year. Then, they create and test new drugs for these targets. Some of the cancers receiving targeted treatment options include:
- Bladder cancer
- Brain cancer
- Breast cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Endometrial cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST)
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Neuroendocrine tumors
- Pancreatic cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Soft tissue sarcoma
- Stomach cancer
- Thyroid cancer
- Some childhood cancers
Jun Zhang, MD, PhD,
Thoracic Medical Oncologist
The University of Kansas Health System
I am a thoracic oncologist and specialize in treating lung cancer. Precision medicine is important because everyone’s lung cancer is different. With precision medicine, we ensure you receive tailored and personalized therapy to maximize your treatment response and simultaneously minimize toxicities. We are revolutionizing lung cancer treatment — targeted therapies or immunotherapies based on your tumor’s genetic makeup and immune profiling. As a result, we are seeing significant improvement in the 5-year survival for lung cancer.
You may receive targeted therapy if your cancer has the target that a treatment was designed for. Your doctor needs to test a sample of blood, bone marrow, or tumor tissue to learn this. They then make recommendations based on these results, as well as other factors.
The future of personalized cancer medicine
Personalized cancer medicine can make cancer treatment more effective, with fewer side effects. But there are still some challenges. These include:
- Personalized treatment is not available for all types and subtypes of cancer.
- Some personalized treatments are only available in clinical trials.
- Genetic testing can be expensive. Insurance plans do not always pay for it. Also, testing your genes and the genes in your tumor takes time. This can mean you wait longer to get the personalized treatment.
- Some personalized treatments, such as targeted treatments, can be expensive.
Researchers are still developing personalized medicine for cancer. They want to learn more about:
- The gene changes that happen in cancer cells.
- How personalized cancer treatments work.
- Why some targeted therapies stop working.
Source: Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2021