Cancer patients in the UK are to be treated with drugs specific to the genetic make-up of their individual tumours. A new initiative, to be launched by the NHS this autumn, will test the tumours of up to 6000 cancer patients a year for known genetic mutations. Identification of these mutations will determine the kind of treatment these patients receive.
Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, which is launching the initiative, said: 'We believe that cancer medicine has reached a point where increasingly the genetic characteristics of individuals' tumours will and should dictate what treatments they receive. We now have enough genetic markers and drugs for this to make a real difference. It's patently obvious that this is going to be the way of the future'.
Genetically guided anti-cancer treatments are already in use in hospitals. For example, breast cancer patients who test positive for defects in the HER2 gene are treated with the drug Herceptin. However currently genetic testing of tumours is not uniformly available on the NHS and is often only carried out for a single genetic defect. The preliminary trial, to be carried out at six centres across the UK, will test for multiple genetic defects in tumours. The types of tumour to be tested, and the specific mutations to be screened, will be determined by a scientific advisory panel set up by Cancer Research UK.
James Peach, director of stratified medicine at Cancer Research UK said: 'The benefits for patients are clear: better treatments and avoiding unnecessary side-effects. But this would also allow us to drive research in stratified medicines by recording the effectiveness of certain treatments against each type of tumour'. It is also believed that targeting individual cancer treatments in this way could save the NHS money, by avoiding the use of expensive but ultimately ineffective drugs.
'Discoveries of new cancer genes, of new drug targets and of new ways to predict whether patients will respond to particular therapies are accelerating, but a major challenge is how to obtain the benefits of these advances for patients in the NHS. This initiative will form the basis for doing just that', says Professor Mike Stratton, director of the Cancer Genome Project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The results of this initiative will help guide future plans to apply genetic diagnostics in the treatment of cancer to the entire NHS.