Perhaps you have seen billboards around Lincoln, Neb., asking people to “save your tumor” and wondered what that was all about.
Our medical community is taking part in a federally funded research project that we believe will someday change the way that cancer is prevented, diagnosed and treated.
So far this year, more than 150 Lincoln-area cancer patients have joined the Midwest Personalized Oncology Program (MPOP) and volunteered to donate cancer tissue for scientific analysis.
In the right form, in the right hands, in the right labs, these small samples can help transform the science of oncology.
Most of this tissue, whether it is malignant or benign, is discarded after surgery and pathology testing; however, a piece of tumor as small as a pencil eraser holds a vast amount of molecular information.
Decoding genes and their behavior can reveal how the more than 200 kinds of cancer start, grow, spread and respond to new and existing treatments.
Tumors, even among seemingly identical cancers, display unique arrays of genes gone wrong. This variation helps explain why some people are cured and some die—even when their cancer looked the same under the microscope.
The U.S. declared a war on cancer in the 1970s. But at the molecular level, there was a battlefield invisible to our technology at the time. Only with technology advances over the last decade can we now take a more close up view of cancer. And that will show us new pathways to cure it.
Some of these findings are making their way into medicine, but for patients fighting to survive, the new science can’t happen fast enough.
For these patients, their families and those serving them, each person’s fight against cancer is very personal. In the larger context, our need to progress is growing more urgent:
*Cancer is the No. 2 cause of death in the U.S.
*Health care costs will spiral higher as the baby boomer generation enters the “cancer years.”
*Medicine can successfully treat many cancers caught early, but is frustrated by late-stage cancers and types that evade treatment.
*The current range of treatments available does not provide enough precision for a myriad of malignant conditions.
The age of molecular biology is showing us that cancer is even more complex than we thought and that, in many ways, each person’s cancer is unique. Until we can get to the bottom of this, cancer will remain a tragic and costly challenge for our society.
The promise is, new technology can pinpoint suspect genes involved with cancer, and do it much faster and at lower cost than ever before. One result is the creation of new diagnostic tests that help us tailor cancer care on a more individual level.
Breast cancer can illustrate the promise of this technology. Today we can use a genetic test to identify whether or not a patient will benefit from chemotherapy aimed at stopping recurrence of breast cancer after surgery.
For a specific set of patients, this test panel of 21 genes in breast cancer tissue helps doctors decide how aggressive to be in the treatment process. A $3,800 test can save tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary treatment and spare patients the ordeal of chemotherapy.
More such tests are in development, and many more are needed. Today’s technology lets us look at the interwoven activity patterns of genes and proteins. Seeing what is happening at the molecular level is no longer the main obstacle, even though it is highly complex. Instead, a major problem today is that researchers do not have enough cancer tissue to examine. To solve this national problem, they need the help of patients and medical professionals around the country.
Building the necessary tissue banks and data sets will help all of us receive the best return on our society’s investment in an amazing array of scientific expertise.
To solve this problem, we need programs like MPOP all over the U.S. to better link national research with community healthcare.
Over 85 percent of cancer patients are treated by local doctors in their own community. Most advanced cancer research, housed in a handful of academic centers, is isolated from the vast majority of cancer patients. MPOP has received federal funding to show how to bridge this gap.
In Lincoln, MPOP set up an efficient system to organize the efforts of our surgeons, pathologists, oncologists and other specialists. It will serve as a standard template that other communities can use to connect their cancer patients with researchers here and elsewhere.
Our work together as medical specialists and patients will help change how cancer is treated in the future. And we can be proud that most Lincoln-area patients learning about MPOP have signed up.
Essentially they are learning about the idea of donating cancer tissue just after they have heard that they may have cancer. It is fair to say that they have more on their minds than the complexities of health care and medical research. But we can all be grateful for their participation. Each person joining in this research project is helping others, even though they may not receive any immediate benefit in their own care.
Taking care of cancer patients is often a humbling experience. We see this selfless courage emerge. And from that we gain great hope that over the coming decade we will unravel one of the most complex medical challenges of our era.
The Midwest Personalized Oncology Program is a coalition of patients, medical professionals, researchers and health care advocates. MPOP is funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. More information about MPOP can be found at www.save-your-tumor.com.