AMBRIDGE, Mass. — Blocking tumor progression. Developing liquid biopsies. Engaging patients to find personalized treatments.
They are all tantalizing ways in which scientists hope to make progress against cancer, a panel of experts noted Wednesday, even as steep challenges remain and the conversation around treatment evolves.
“We have entered a new era,” said Tyler Jacks, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.
Researchers investigating cancer are no longer following a single path toward discovery, said Dr. Jeff Engelman, the vice president and global head of oncology research at Novartis.
Instead, over the past five to 10 years, scientists have embarked on an array of approaches, thanks to cutting-edge discoveries that in some cases have come from other scientific fields.
Among them: exploring how the gene-editing technology CRISPR could be used to alter genomes, engineering and boosting immune cells, and relying on novel advances in medicinal chemistry to target proteins that were previously considered “undruggable.”
“It’s a wonderful thing that there are so many biotechs and academic groups exploring these,” Engelman said. “We really need people reaching out into all directions.”
The panel — “War on Cancer 3.0” — was part of the HUBweek festival. It was sponsored by STAT and the Jackson Laboratory, and moderated by STAT national biotech reporter Damian Garde.
The other panelists were Christine Cournoyer, the CEO of N-of-One, and Dr. William Hahn, the chief research strategy officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
In her introductory remarks, BJ Bormann, the vice president of translational science and network alliances at the Jackson Laboratory, described version 1.0 of treating cancer as surgery and basic treatments, and version 2.0 starting with Gleevec and the arrival of precision medicine.
But for all the excitement around the pioneering work being done in cancer, the researchers lamented that many existing therapies aren’t available to all patients and aren’t always reaching the right patients.
Physician education could help, they said, as could improved data-sharing.
More and more drugs are being approved to treat cancers based on their genomic profiles, for example, but the complexity of the disease makes it hard for clinicians to always match the drugs to their patients, the panelists said. They might see that their patients’ tumors have certain mutations that make them good candidates for certain drugs, but they might miss resistance genes that mean the drugs probably won’t work.
Similarly, doctors may need to know more about their patients’ tumors’ genes to match them with promising clinical trials — which is why the panelists emphasized the importance of expanding the availability of sequencing technology to more doctors.
“I think that’s going to improve as we sequence more patients at the point of care,” Cournoyer said.
The panelists also discussed the high rate of failure for potential treatments discovered in in animal models. But they said that those failures don’t have to just be that; instead, they can provide kernels of information that can ultimately drive future successes in clinical trials, as long as researchers remember to look at what went wrong.
“It sometimes is frustrating to hear that things that have so much promise don’t wind up working,” Hahn said. But, he added, that that is how progress is made.
“It informs how to do the next thing better.”