Genetic Map Gives Hope On Cancer Treatment

Thomas Moore, Health and Science Correspondent
Genetic Map Gives Hope On Cancer Treatment

Every cancer patient could soon have a genetic profile made of their tumour so they can be treated with new smart drugs that can dramatically improve their survival.

Scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research believe the technique will prove so effective that it will turn cancer into a chronic disease that people live with, rather than die from.

Work at the institute's new Tumour Profiling Unit will begin this year to analyse patients' cancer cells for changes to their DNA. These mutations allow the tumour to grow out of control and even develop resistance to chemotherapy.

By identifying key genetic changes, researchers hope to target specific drugs at individual patients.

Breast cancer patients are already beginning to benefit from such personalised medicine. The drug Herceptin is highly effective - but only in women who have tumours positive for a protein called HER2.

Other cancer patients are now set to benefit.

Professor Alan Ashworth, from the institute, said: "None of this is science fiction.

"One would think in five or 10 years this will be absolutely routine practice for every cancer patient, and that's what we're aiming to bring about."

Tumour profiling has been made possible by the rapid advances in DNA analysis.

A decade ago it took several years and millions of pounds to analyse the genetic blueprint inside cells; now it can be done in days for £1,000.

The technique is also likely to speed up the search for new drugs, and make the research significantly cheaper. The biggest cost in developing a treatment is clinical trials, which involve thousands of patients, who respond to varying degrees.

But by identifying in advance the patients with tumours that are most likely to respond, trials could be far smaller.

"Let's design the trials for success rather than failure," said Prof Ashworth.

"Basically, the way we're developing drugs for cancer is now failing big time.

"The idea of developing old-fashioned chemotherapy is going out the window."