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Personalized Medicine [Part 2] - Time for a Reality Check?

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Cancer Research 101: Personalized Medicine [Part 2] - Time for a Reality Check?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Personalized Medicine [Part 2] - Time for a Reality Check?

Despite the enormous promise of personalized or precision medicine coming from the  genomics era, I think we need to collectively take a deep breath and also ponder the reality of just how far this new technology can take us.

Without in any way diminishing the huge potential of the "$1000 genome" era, I think there are at least two important areas where we need to do a reality check.

 The first of these I have already written about - the need for debate in society about how we want to view privacy and confidentiality, and how are we going to deal with the influx of personal, genetic information that could overwhelm and confuse us despite good intentions to the contrary.

The second area stems (no pun intended) from the reality that cancer is, at its heart, a set of diseases marked by tremendous  genetic instability. The reason that so many cancers are hard to treat is because every time you think you have it pinned down, it morphs into something a bit different.

For example, when a number of the first Gleevec patients started to relapse, the sound of people jumping OFF the bandwagon was an audible thud. Skeptics said "see, we knew it couldn't really work so easily!" Subsequent studies showed, however, that Gleevec indeed worked exactly as advertised, but in the interim, the cancers had “evolved” – they developed some secondary mutations that essentially allowed the Gleevec roadblock to be bypassed.  If  you put roadblocks up on the main highways, cancer will find a way to take a side road to get out of town. If you block the side roads, cancer often will find some other route.

So, the advent of an international consortium like ICGC  that is  so very powerful, coupled with the fact that gene sequencing costs are spiralling downward, leads us logically to anticipate a new era of personalized and precision medicine. The idea is out there that if every patient’s tumour could be biopsied and his/her cancer genome sequenced so that we can determine and understand the underlying genetic defects, then we will be able to choose a tailored therapeutic regimen to treat that patient and his/her cancer in a more targeted way than ever before possible.

But that kind of future scenario depends not only on “cheap” sequencing technologies and an enormous database of mutations associated with cancers (both of which are now or will soon be in our reach), but it also depends, at least in part, on one other crucial factor. If we do a biopsy on a patient’s cancer, are we confident that what we will learn will be sufficient to give us the depth and detail of understanding that we need so that we can put this therapeutic precision and personalization to the test?

As is so often the case with cancers, the answer is, maybe…..

Why the hedge? Because we haven’t yet fully accounted for the idea that tumours are undoubtedly NOT homogeneous, that is, they do not have a uniform structure or character. There may well  be many different types of cancer cells even in a single patient’s cancer. We call this “tumour heterogeneity” which in simple terms means that the tumour may be a “dog’s breakfast” of different kinds of cells and different kinds of mutations.

As Dr. Dan Longo wrote in an editorial entitled Tumor Heterogeneity and Personalized Medicine in the March 8, 2012 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine:  

“A new world has been anticipated in which patients will undergo a needle biopsy of a tumor in the outpatient clinic, and a little while later, an active treatment will be devised for each patient on the basis of the distinctive genetic characteristics of the tumor,” he wrote.  “But a serious flaw in the imagined future of oncology is its underestimation of tumor heterogeneity.”

This “complication” came to the fore earlier this month with the publication of a very important study, entitled IntratumorHeterogeneity and Branched Evolution Revealed by Multiregion Sequencing published in the same New England Journal of Medicine issue. 
That’s a very technical title, and indeed a very specialized and technical paper, but the bottom line of it is this: a team of researchers led by Drs. Marco Gerlinger and Charles Swanton from London, UK found that there was an astonishing degree of genetic variation in biopsies from the same tumour from the same patient. In fact, multiple biopsies taken from single patients with kidney cancer (renal carcinoma) showed that there were many different mutations in each biopsy, and that not all of them showed up in all of the biopsies. In fact, the majority (over 60% of the mutations) did NOT show up across all of the biopsies.

Even worse, the researchers found that the mutations and gene “signatures” found in one region of the tumour were consistent with what we would currently have said is a good prognosis, whereas gene “signatures” found in a different part of the very same tumour were consistent with what we would have expected to be a poor prognosis!

This study, if typical for other tumours, suggests that a simple, i.e., non-invasive biopsy of a limited region of a tumour might NOT be at all sufficient to proceed with a very targeted therapeutic regimen. What if we targeted treatment to the wrong cells, cells that maybe by chance only represented 10% of the tumour?  What if we chose not to treat aggressively based on an ostensibly great prognosis from the biopsied material, only to find out later to our detriment that we were fooled by a “sampling error” of lamentable proportions?

So, bottom line, looking at both sides of the coin of "personalized medicine" (e.g., this post and the previous post), what does this all mean?

Are genomics, DNA sequencing and the building of mutation databases of enormous proportion tantamount going to lead us single-handedly to the Holy Grail of cancer treatments? Hardly.

Does the Swanton et al. study on genetic variation in kidney cancers mean that we are wasting our time with  the pursuit of genomics and precision cancer therapies? Again, hardly.

Like all things cancer, black and white approaches are simply not the way to go. This may be a bump in the road, as some have alluded, but if it is, it is not the end of the road by any means. We will learn some breathtaking insights from genomics, but it will be only one powerful tool in the arsenal, not the whole answer.

As one blogger eloquently put it in describing the kidney cancer study (Jessica Wapner, March 9, 2012, in a PublicLibrary of Science blog)

“It’s for this reason that the idea of personalized medicine—and here we are talking specifically about drugs targeted against the genetic make-up of an individual cancer, not about a whole-person regimen for life based on your personal DNA quirks—is one that has to be held with a long-view. It took decades for the first useful chemotherapy drug to be discovered. If we absorb the notion that targeted therapy is still in its nascent stage, then this new study isn’t a bump in the road, but rather another description of the scenery.”

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