Gene-Specific Treatments Target Cancers
BRCA1 and BRCA2 are as close as DNA sequences get to being celebrities. The two cancer genes, which are part of a class of tumor suppressors, are often oversimplified and simply called "breast cancer genes."
The two genes are noted for helping inform doctors if a woman has an elevated risk of breast cancer, but there are countless other genes that are being studied for clues into various cancers.
If doctors and researchers can identify the mutations that allow damaged cells to divide faster than healthy cells that could lead to tests and therapies that will offer more tailored treatments. The advances in DNA sequencing have opened the door for cancer genomics, which was named a top 10 emerging technology of 2011 by MIT Technology Review. Although there have been some impressive success stories, there is also a long timeline between identifying genes and translating that into better medicine.
"This is an area of extreme hope and promise right now," said Dr. Matthew Meyerson, professor in the Department of Pathology at Harvard Medical School and founder of Foundation Medicine, a company aiming to bring genomics into routine clinical practice for all cancer patients.
Meyerson describes himself as a true believer in targeted therapies, but he is also realistic about how long it will take. Different research groups have sequenced the genomes of various cancers , but only a few have resulted in clinical applications so far. He noted that although certain lung cancer patients with mutations in the EGFR gene have seen statistically significant increases in survival rate, it's still only one to two years for most patients.
"Even a lot of the successes with targeted therapies aren't good enough yet," Meyerson told InnovationNewsdaily.
There are concerted research efforts for a handful of genes related to lung cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer and others. But more than 10 years after the breast cancer genes were identified, there is still much work to be done.
"Can we develop a therapy for every genome alteration that causes cancer is really the question," Meyerson said. "I'm very optimistic we can do this."
Although he sees a bright future for cancer genomics, he and other researchers know the work will go on for decades. He guessed therapies for every cancer could take anywhere from 20 to 200 years.
"I have no idea how long it will take," Meyerson said. "It will not be in the next five years."
This story is part of a series covering MIT Technology Review's Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2011 list. You can read the previous parts of the series here.