New column! Frontline: Cancer, San Diego is leading the charge to make cancer medicine better
By Scott M. Lippman, M.D.
Recently, Time magazine emblazoned its cover with the headline “How to Cure Cancer” and suggested, perhaps a bit too breathlessly, that major breakthroughs were just around the corner.
There is reason for optimism. Now is a time of truly unprecedented scientific innovation and clinical revolution in cancer research and therapy. We understand the nature of cancer better than ever; we have more tools and tricks.
But progress still comes too slowly for the almost 600,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer. Cancer is the nation’s second leading cause of death (after heart disease), but No. 1 in the San Diego region. There is little time to celebrate our incomplete success.
Cancer demands the full talents and resources of scientists and physicians everywhere, preferably working together. This has long been the mantra in San Diego, home to the second largest cluster of biotech companies in the U.S., and upon the research mesa here in La Jolla. Our communal sense of purpose and collaboration has been strengthened by a recent strategic alliance to advance cancer medicine.
In March 2013, the three National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers in La Jolla joined to create the novel San Diego NCI Cancer Centers Council, or C3, designed to more effectively leverage our distinct and combined strengths.
Two C3 centers are the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, two of only seven NCI-designated basic science cancer centers nationwide. The third is UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, the region’s only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center and the clinical hub for exciting C3 interactions.
These centers, through C3 and independently, collaborate with exceptional cancer researchers at other major institutes on the mesa such as the J Craig Venter Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology.
C3 allows us to broaden and deepen our respective and collective abilities. There will be greater interaction between the cancer centers, from bench to bedside. Doctors and scientists will share access to areas like bioinformatics, genomics and clinical trials. Both science and patients will benefit from major thrusts of C3 scientists, including precisely applied cancer therapy.
The landscape of cancer and its care is changing rapidly. Genomic research has unraveled many underlying abnormalities that drive cancer. Hard experience has shown that there is no one-size-fits-all therapy. Fortunately, we now have powerful ways to sequence the DNA in, and identify specific aberrations that caused, a particular patient’s cancer.
Many drugs now available can specifically target the genomic drivers in tumors. These drugs often can kill tumor cells, which harbor the drug’s target, with minimal damage to healthy organs, where the target is absent.
This makes for effective drugs with few side effects. Still, the drugs must be given to the “right” patients, which happens only after we use the most advanced genomic sequencing technologies to understand each patient’s tumor. This is precision or personalized cancer medicine.
Top scientists and investigators, such as Dr. Razelle Kurzrock, are working within C3 to bring personalized therapy to cancer patients now, not five or 10 years from now. Her research has shown that molecular profiling and personalized, targeted therapy benefited about 50 percent of patients with advanced cancer – only about five percent of these patients would be expected to benefit from conventional therapy.
She is now developing the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy at the Moores Cancer Center, where C3 investigators and industry partners in San Diego will bring the personalized products of their collaborative research to patients in the clinic.
In the months ahead, I will describe these efforts and the challenges we face as scientists, doctors, citizens and patients. I will talk about the cancer picture, from the marvelous curative possibilities of stem cells to the realities of palliative care.
We may never “cure” cancer – no matter what magazine covers declare – but it is becoming increasingly possible to disrobe the “emperor of all maladies,” to strip away cancer’s clever defenses and reduce it to near invisibility. That would be something to see.
—Scott M. Lippman, M.D., is Director of UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. His column on medical advances from the front lines of cancer research and care will appear in the La Jolla Light the fourth Thursday of each month. You can reach Dr. Lippman at email@example.com.
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