January 21, 2022 by John Fernandez
The Promise of Precision Medicine Means Hope for Cancer Patients
Marked by the continued presence of COVID-19, 2021 was a milestone year for healthcare. Alongside medical innovation to confront the pandemic, we also saw large investments into genetic research in oncology and greater focus on clinical trials for rare cancers. Of all the trends we are seeing in cancer treatment, however, I am particularly optimistic about the promise of precision medicine across disease types to significantly improve patient outcomes.
We know cancer can behave very differently from one patient to another; precision medicine allows oncologists to determine the best course of treatment for patients on an individual basis, based on their genetic information. This approach opens wide the opportunities ahead to improve patient care, especially for those who don’t respond to traditional treatment approaches, such as radiation and chemotherapy. What’s more, having this greater understanding of a disease can help us when it comes to preventing certain types of cancer and even developing better, targeted treatments.
While researchers have made progress in various areas in 2021 to advance precision medicine in oncology, there are two milestones I find very exciting:
Molecular Profiling Paves the Way for new GI Cancer Treatments
Roughly 35 percent of all cancer-related deaths worldwide are related to gastrointestinal, or GI, disease. Traditional treatment (surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy) usually produces less than satisfying results with this type of cancer, leaving an unfulfilled need to improve care. However, the recent ability of GI oncologists to molecularly profile these tumors has opened pathways to new, more targeted and effective treatments. These treatments have such great potential for improved patient outcomes that the American Society of Clinical Oncology selected molecular profiling in GI cancers as the 2021 Advance of the Year. Additionally, we saw advances for patients with colorectal cancer with the approval of a therapy that targets specific DNA mutations in the metastatic state of the disease.
mRNA-Based Therapeutic Vaccines Get Their Moment in the Spotlight
While not an entirely new concept, mRNA vaccines continue to be stars of the show in precision medicine. mRNA vaccines deliver to our bodies the instruction manual for fighting a specific disease, and we have seen their potential most recently with the COVID-19 vaccines. Similar to how this vaccine flags to a person’s immune system what the COVID-19’s spike protein looks like so it is prepared to respond if it shows up, therapeutic mRNA-based vaccines may be able to warn about a present cancer so the immune system can destroy the tumor cells. However, knowing what to flag comes down to a patient’s unique genetic cancer mutation – there isn’t a universal target. However, some preliminary clinical trial results have shown this to be highly effective.
Right now, there are several mRNA vaccines registered for clinical trials. It will take years of clinical trials to fully understand the value of this treatment approach, but COVID-19 gave mRNA-based vaccine treatments the attention they needed to keep advancing. With increased funding and enrollment in clinical trials for these mRNA-based therapies, we have seen greatly progress in the last year, and I am certain the oncology community is excitedly awaiting the possibilities ahead for patients.
I have seen the continued progress of precision medicine and its potential to revolutionize how we care for patients battling cancer. That is why I am extremely proud of our team of clinical geneticists and genetics experts. The work we are doing is paving the way for predictive diagnostics and personalized treatments, and it empowers our cancer experts and our patients with valuable information for reducing and managing cancer risks. We hope the insights we gain from genetic testing and research in this area will one day soon produce life-saving diagnostic tools and treatments for all cancers.
As always, we are looking ahead, and there are plenty of bright spots on the 2022 horizon. One trend that has especially great promise for the future of precision oncology is the use of Artificial Intelligence, or AI, and Machine Learning. AI offers unique opportunities to complement precision medicine, from how we detect and classify cancer to how we develop new treatments and predict their outcomes.
Of course, there are challenges to incorporating AI into healthcare, like data biases, data sharing frameworks that support AI, code sharing for AI models, and a general lack of trust in AI among healthcare workers and even patients. However, I’m excited to see the ways AI applications will advance in this coming year, and how it unfolds in the long-term in the context of precision medicine.
This was a challenging year for healthcare workers – including my team at Miami Cancer Institute – but I am proud of what we have accomplished. If we can learn from the challenges we face, we will surely be stronger for it, as an institution, and as healthcare practitioners.
I hope that we all can feel empowered by the advancements we have made in the face of adversity this year, and use this empowerment to advance even further in our research and daily practices to support patients. I encourage you to stay informed on latest advances and consider where you may yourself be a maker of change for the patients who need it.