In 2003, a dramatic new era in cancer research and treatment began when scientists working on the Human Genome Project finished sequencing and mapping the complete set of DNA in the human body.
The genetic discoveries of that international research effort sparked breakthroughs in cell biology and spurred innovation in cancer treatment.
Less than a decade later, researchers are working to identify cell mutations that lead to cancer, using newly developed DNA sequencing technology. This same sequencing can be used to decode the genetics of individual cancer patients and uncover the biological and chemical changes driving individual cases of cancer.
Understanding cancer at this cellular level has allowed scientists to develop ways to target specific cancer cells rather than using a shotgun treatment approach. For example, scientists have created biological therapies, including antibodies and small molecules, which slow or stop cancer in patients whose tumors contain specific genetic elements that drive tumor growth and progression.
"Our patients are experiencing amazing responses with these new treatment strategies," says Philip Bonomi, MD, a lung cancer specialist at Rush University Medical Center. "They are changing the way we approach the practice of treating cancer."
In the case of breast cancer, doctors found some women had a gene mutation that caused an overproduction of the protein HER2, which stimulates the growth and spread of the disease. Researchers discovered an antibody, trastuzumab, that targets HER2, improving survival in late stage breast cancer patients. There are also early indications that trastuzumab will increase long-term survival in early stage patients.
"In some instances, tumors are addicted to the genetic abnormality that is driving their growth, and giving the targeted therapy is like turning off a light switch," Bonomi says.
Some antibodies are being used to produce vaccines for prostate tumors, lung cancer and melanoma. Ipilimumab has improved survival in patients with advanced melanoma, a particularly aggressive and treatment-resistant type of skin cancer. Unlike other vaccines, these don't prevent disease. Instead, they introduce proteins into the bloodstream that stimulate the immune system to kill cancer cells.
Scientists continue to make progress in the ever-changing field of cancer research, working diligently to bring new treatment methods to doctors and patients.
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