People with the same kind of cancer can respond differently to the same treatment. Until recently, doctors and the medical community didn’t fully understand why that happens. However, an evolving field of research in cancer treatment is changing that. Known as precision medicine, doctors are now increasingly able to target someone’s cancer care based on his or her own very specific cancer.
Understanding cancer at the genetic level
Cancer begins when damage or changes (known as mutations) in a cell’s DNA cause it to grow out of control. This eventually forms a tumor. There are many factors that can influence these cellular changes, including:
- Genetic traits you’re born with
- Environmental influences
- Lifestyle differences
“What we’ve found in recent years is that the pattern of mutations in a tumor influences how the cancer grows and spreads. Two patients with the same type of cancer may have different tumor profiles. And two patients with different types of cancer may have similar tumor profiles,” explains Steven N. Kalkanis, M.D., a neurosurgeon and the medical director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.
How does precision medicine work?
Precision medicine targets cancer treatment based on a patient’s specific tumor profile. A patient’s tumor profile is identified with the help of genetic testing, and sometimes with a biopsy (a test in which a small sample of a tumor is taken for analysis). The cancer team then looks for specific mutations that indicate whether the cancer will respond well to a particular treatment. This lets the medical oncology team recommend treatments that are more likely to work — and avoid treatments that aren’t.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is spearheading an effort to track and map genetic differences from the DNA of more than 1 million volunteers to help build a nationwide database of tumor profiles. This database will expand the capabilities of using precision medicine to treat more cancer patients with uniquely targeted therapies.
For more information about cancer treatment at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com/cancer or call 1-888-777-4167.