The Genetics of Cancer

What will medical breakthroughs mean for you?

DNA in test tubes

By Brian Bolwell, MD

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What if you could take a pill twice a day to treat cancer instead of going through surgery or other difficult treatments? Sound far-fetched? It’s not, thanks to genetic research and personalized medicine.

For decades, experts have been challenged to figure out how to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact. Years ago, the best way to treat patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) was through a bone marrow transplant combined with chemotherapy or radiation.

But treatment evolved once researchers identified the genetic abnormality responsible for causing CML. This discovery paved the way for a new class of drugs that target that specific abnormality. Those drugs evolved. First came imatinib, followed by dasatinib and nilotinib for patients who did not respond well to the first drug.

Now, instead of transplantation, many CML patients can take a pill that targets deadly cancer cells and leaves healthy cells alone.

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That’s the prototype of cancer medicine for the future.

What comes next?

Through personalized medicine we recognize an important fact: We are not all exactly the same.

Neither are tumors. You can look at 100 different tumors, and they all look similar. But when you look at them using genetics, they are all unique, just like each patient.

We hope that continued research will lead us to develop a menu of drugs and therapies to target the specific genetic abnormalities that cause certain cancers. This research could lead to treatments with better success rates and fewer side effects. Anyone who has been through — or cared for someone who has been through — cancer treatments knows how important this is.

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Through research, we also hope to be able to diagnose cancer earlier and earlier. For example, Cleveland Clinic’s Charis Eng, MD, PhD, has identified abnormalities in genes that increase the risk of thyroid cancer. Those findings could lead to better testing in the future — especially important since the survival rate for thyroid cancer is nearly 100 percent if it’s caught early.

There is plenty we still don’t know about cancer. The physicians and researchers at Taussig Cancer Institute continue to work to uncover key information about the genetics of cancer that will affect the way patients are screened, diagnosed and treated in years to come.

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