Genetics Key in Battle Against Cancer

Oncology Certified Nurse Caroline Bailey, right,comforts cancer patient Nobue Chowanec and her husband Emile.

It may sound like something from a sci-fi thriller, but don’t be fooled: Gene profiling is real, and could be a powerful weapon in the war against cancer. “There have been many significant advances in recent years in the area of cancer genetics,” says Brian Vikstrom, M.D., an oncologist/hematologist with NorthBay Cancer Center.

“We have a better understanding of how cancers develop and how to affect their growth. And new technologies are being used to develop drugs that more effectively target cancer cells.”

The NorthBay Cancer Center team, which includes James Long, M.D., Florian Ploch, M.D., and Dr. Vikstrom, are making the most of these advanced treatments, and are offering them to their patients.

Gene profiling of tumors has become much more common, especially during the past few years, Dr. Vikstrom notes. Researchers have begun to unravel the mysteries of the genetic make-up of cancer cells and are gaining a better understanding of why these cells behave the way they do. They have discovered new proteins and chemical substances that are either produced by cancer cells or affect the growth and development of cancer cells. These new discoveries have shed light on how these genetic differences may make a particular cancer either more sensitive to or resistant to certain drug therapies. Tumor-specific genetics may be able to reveal which treatments, such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy, would be of most benefit to the patient. This would spare the patient from the side effects of a treatment that is less likely to help treat their disease.

Several of the new cancer drugs, currently available or in development, are able to block some of the mutations and pathways that cause tumor cells to grow.

The cellular processes exposed by research have resulted in an increase in the development of drugs that “target” a variety of proteins that have been shown to increase cancer cell growth. Several of these new cancer drugs, currently available or in development, are able to block some of the mutations and pathways that cause tumor cells to grow. By using these agents, oncologists may be able to slow or arrest the growth of malignant cells, sometimes without having to use traditional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.

“If there is a drug that can put a cog in the wheel to stop it from clicking, we can stop the cancer from growing,” Dr. Vikstrom says. “For some cancers, such as renal cancer, we did not have any good treatments, no home runs; now we have something with these new targeted drugs.”

Today, when it comes to treating cancer, the treatment will likely be as unique and as individualized as the cancer—and the patient. For breast cancer alone, there are more than a dozen treatment regimens, and therapy has expanded to include new classes of drugs, Dr. Vikstrom notes.

Another area of promise for cancer patients lies within clinical trials. There are hundreds of clinical trials under way, exploring new ways to treat cancers. The trials may involve new anti-cancer drugs, doses and treatment schedules, as well as drug combinations and hormonal therapy. Some trials compare a new treatment against a standard treatment, while others introduce new drugs that haven’t been used before. Several NorthBay Cancer Center patients are participating in clinical trials and the team is always on the lookout for the right patient or right trial.

“We’re doing better, patients are living longer or are being cured,” says Dr. Vikstrom.

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