Precision Oncology: Gene Changes Predict Immunotherapy Response

Cancer Immunotherapy

Caption: Adapted from scanning electron micrograph of cytotoxic T cells (red) attacking a cancer cell (white).
Credits: Rita Elena Serda, Baylor College of Medicine; Jill George, NIH

There’s been tremendous excitement in the cancer community recently about the life-saving potential of immunotherapy. In this treatment strategy, a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. But despite many dramatic stories of response, immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. A major challenge has been figuring out how to identify with greater precision which patients are most likely to benefit from this new approach, and how to use that information to develop strategies to expand immunotherapy’s potential.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about early progress on this front, highlighting a small study in which NIH-funded researchers were able to predict which people with colorectal and other types of cancer would benefit from an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). The key seemed to be that tumors with defects affecting the “mismatch repair” pathway were more likely to benefit. Mismatch repair is involved in fixing small glitches that occur when DNA is copied during cell division. If a tumor is deficient in mismatch repair, it contains many more DNA mutations than other tumors—and, as it turns out, immunotherapy appears to be most effective against tumors with many mutations.

Now, I’m pleased to report more promising news from that clinical trial of pembrolizumab, which was expanded to include 86 adults with 12 different types of mismatch repair-deficient cancers that had been previously treated with at least one type of standard therapy [1]. After a year of biweekly infusions, more than half of the patients had their tumors shrink by at least 30 percent—and, even better, 18 had their tumors completely disappear!

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Precision Oncology: Epigenetic Patterns Predict Glioblastoma Outcomes

Brain scan analysis

Caption: Oncologists review a close-up image of a brain tumor (green dot).
Credit: National Cancer Institute

Scientists have spent much time and energy mapping the many DNA misspellings that can transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. But recently it has become increasingly clear that changes to the DNA sequence itself are not the only culprits. Cancer can also be driven by epigenetic changes to DNA—modifications to chemical marks on the genome don’t alter the sequence of the DNA molecule, but act to influence gene activity. A prime example of this can been seen in glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer that strikes about 12,000 Americans each year.

In fact, an NIH-funded research team recently published in Nature Communications the most complete portrait to date of the epigenetic patterns characteristic of the glioblastoma genome [1]. Among their findings were patterns associated with how long patients survived after the cancer was detected. While far more research is needed, the findings highlight the potential of epigenetic information to help doctors devise more precise ways of diagnosing, treating, and perhaps even preventing glioblastoma and many other forms of cancer.

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Precision Oncology: Nanoparticles Target Bone Cancers in Dogs

Timothy Fan and his dog Ember

Caption: Veterinary researcher Timothy Fan with his healthy family pet Ember.
Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

Many people share their homes with their pet dogs. Spending years under the same roof with the same environmental exposures, people and dogs have something else in common that sometimes gets overlooked. They can share some of the same diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. By studying these diseases in dogs, researchers can learn not only to improve care for people but for their canine friends as well.

As a case in point, an NIH-funded team of researchers recently tested a new method of delivering chemotherapy drugs for osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that affects dogs and people, typically teenagers and older adults. Their studies in dogs undergoing treatment for osteosarcoma suggest that specially engineered, bone-seeking nanoparticles might safely deliver anti-cancer drugs precisely to the places where they are most needed. These early findings come as encouraging news for the targeted treatment of inoperable bone cancers and other malignancies that spread to bone.

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Study Shows DNA Sequencing Brings Greater Precision to Childhood Cancer

Dr. Plon with a patient and her family

Caption: Baylor’s Sharon Plon consults with a family at the Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston.
Credit: Paul V. Kuntz/Texas Children’s Hospital

An impressive number of fundamental advances in our understanding of cancer have occurred over the past several decades. One of the most profound is the realization that cancer is a disease of the genome, driven by a wide array of changes in DNA—some in the germline and affecting all cells of the body, but most occurring in individual cells during life (so-called “somatic mutations”). As the technology for sequencing cancer genomes has advanced, we are learning that virtually all cancers carry a unique set of mutations. Most are DNA copying errors of no significance (we call those “passengers”), but a few of them occur in genes that regulate cell growth and contribute causatively to the cancer (we call those “drivers”). We are now learning that it may be far more important for treating cancer to figure out what driver mutations are present in a patient’s tumor than to identify in which organ it arose. And, as a new study shows, this approach even appears to have potential to help cancer’s littlest victims.

Using genomic technology to analyze both tumor and blood samples from a large number of children who’d been newly diagnosed with cancer, an NIH-funded research team uncovered genetic clues with the potential to refine diagnosis, identify inherited cancer susceptibility, or guide treatment for nearly 40 percent of the children [1]. The potential driver mutations spanned a broad spectrum of genes previously implicated not only in pediatric cancers, but also in adult cancers. While much more work remains to determine how genomic analyses can be used to devise precise, new strategies for treating kids with cancer, the study provides an excellent example of the kind of research that NIH hopes to accelerate under the nation’s new cancer “moonshot,”  a research initiative recently announced by the President and being led by the Vice President.

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Precision Oncology: Creating a Genomic Guide for Melanoma Therapy

Melanoma cell

Caption: Human malignant melanoma cell viewed through a fluorescent, laser-scanning confocal microscope. Invasive structures involved in metastasis appear as greenish-yellow dots, while actin (green) and vinculin (red) are components of the cell’s cytoskeleton.
Credit: Vira V. Artym, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, NIH

It’s still the case in most medical care systems that cancers are classified mainly by the type of tissue or part of the body in which they arose—lung, brain, breast, colon, pancreas, and so on. But a radical change is underway. Thanks to advances in scientific knowledge and DNA sequencing technology, researchers are identifying the molecular fingerprints of various cancers and using them to divide cancer’s once-broad categories into far more precise types and subtypes. They are also discovering that cancers that arise in totally different parts of the body can sometimes have a lot in common. Not only can molecular analysis refine diagnosis and provide new insights into what’s driving the growth of a specific tumor, it may also point to the treatment strategy with the greatest chance of helping a particular patient.

The latest cancer to undergo such rigorous, comprehensive molecular analysis is malignant melanoma. While melanoma can rarely arise in the eye and a few other parts of the body, this report focused on the more familiar “cutaneous melanoma,” a deadly and increasingly common form of skin cancer [1].  Reporting in the journal Cell [2], The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Network says it has identified four distinct molecular subtypes of melanoma. In addition, the NIH-funded network identified an immune signature that spans all four subtypes. Together, these achievements establish a much-needed framework that may guide decisions about which targeted drug, immunotherapy, or combination of therapies to try in an individual with melanoma.

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