NYT series on genetically-targeted cancer treatments

When you have been diagnosed with cancer, as I have, you quickly grow accustomed to "friendly cancer spam." Friends, relatives, and well-meaning acquaintances routinely forward you a gazillion identical links to whatever this week's hot cancer news headline may be.

So it was for me with this New York Times story on Lukas Wartman, a leukemia doctor and researcher at Washington University who developed leukemia. As he faced death last Fall, his cancer genome was sequenced by his colleagues.

What was revealed then led to a treatment plan that targeted the specifics of his genetic makeup. And so far, according to Gina Kolata's report, that experimental treatment plan has been an amazing success. Snip:

Dr. Ley’s team tried a type of analysis that they had never done before. They fully sequenced the genes of both his cancer cells and healthy cells for comparison, and at the same time analyzed his RNA, a close chemical cousin to DNA, for clues to what his genes were doing.

The researchers on the project put other work aside for weeks, running one of the university’s 26 sequencing machines and supercomputer around the clock. And they found a culprit — a normal gene that was in overdrive, churning out huge amounts of a protein that appeared to be spurring the cancer’s growth.

Even better, there was a promising new drug that might shut down the malfunctioning gene — a drug that had been tested and approved only for advanced kidney cancer. Dr. Wartman became the first person ever to take it for leukemia.

And now, against all odds, his cancer is in remission and has been since last fall. While no one can say that Dr. Wartman is cured, after facing certain death last fall, he is alive and doing well.

Suffice it to say that this stuff is relevant to my interests. It is routine for breast cancer patients like me to receive genetic screening for the BRCA mutation, and sometimes a few additional known genetic factors. But there is so much that we do not know, and a growing sense that this infinite array of genetic unknowns could lead to more saved lives, and better quality of life for those of us who have been diagnosed with the disease.

I know I'm not alone in feeling like the treatment I am receiving now will one day be perceived as blunt and barbaric, when genetically-targeted therapies like the ones outlined in these stories become the norm. Those of us undergoing the brutal routine of chemo, radiation, and surgery to keep cancer at bay long for the day when more precise technologies can stop the disease without so much collateral damage.

And then, there is the greater hope that maybe one day all of this will lead to the other "c-word."

A cure.

Read the full article: "In Treatment for Leukemia, Glimpses of the Future."

Part two in the series: "A New Treatment’s Tantalizing Promise Brings Heartbreaking Ups and Downs"

And part three: "A Game Changer in Revealing a Cancer’s Prognosis."

There is a related item in the Economist. Here is the referenced study in the journal Nature from researchers at Washington University.

(image: Shutterstock)

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