Cancer patients in New Zealand can look forward to individualised genetic screening to enable targeted drug treatment in future.
Clinical trials for ‘personalised oncology’ are expected to begin with patients this month, conducted by scientists from the Auckland Cancer Research Centre at The University of Auckland. This will be the first time this type of broad genetic analysis of cancer patients has been done in New Zealand.
Researchers extract the DNA from each patient’s tumour specimen or from free floating cells in the blood, and use that DNA to do a broad genetic screen to identify the key abnormalities that are driving the cancer in that individual.
“We use that information to select the most appropriate drug therapy that specifically targets that abnormality,” says Associate Professor Mark McKeage from the University’s Department of Pharmacology. “These trials are offered to patients with hard to treat cancers that are not responding to other therapies.”
The Auckland trials will screen for 250 specific genetic abnormalities that are linked to known cancers, he says. These are not inherited abnormalities, but are acquired during the cancer development process.
“I’m optimistic and excited about this new approach”, says Dr McKeage. “Cancer death rates are falling dramatically now because of research providing new information about how to prevent, detect early and treat cancers that has prevented cancer deaths and extended the life of cancer sufferers. This effort will result in better treatments to control cancer progression and may eventually lead to a cure.”
“We can expect a lot more therapies using this approach to become available for general use,” says Dr McKeage. “We’re not far away from the time when people diagnosed with cancer will immediately have a DNA test of this type.”
“We would like to be able to offer this screening to all our cancer patients, but that’s not possible as we don’t have the facilities or funding to do that”, says Dr McKeage. “We will focus on the hard to treat patients because for these patients the treatments are only available in clinical trials.”
The cost of this type of genetic screening is expensive but will get cheaper over time, says Dr McKeage. The initial funding of $140,000 and facilitation of the projectwas by The University of Auckland’s commercial entity UniServices, that recognised this as an important initiative for New Zealand cancer patients. This pilot will allow researchers to test 100 patients over the next two years. Further funding will be needed for the next stage of the clinical trials programme.
“We saw that this treatment approach is very powerful and is the dominant paradigm now in new cancer treatment development,” says Dr McKeage. “To remain relevant and have profile in the future, we needed to develop these techniques and the clinical screening process.”
He says that through these trials they are making available treatment options that patients would not otherwise have to help them keep well and live longer. “If you can show that the drug is working in that setting, where nothing else works, then that can result in a rapid change in treatment options” he says. “In some cases drugs can become approved for use and publicly available in about five years.”