Genome expert says futuristic cancer treatments are a reality now

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Several years ago, when a Washington University scientist was facing certain death from leukemia, his colleagues set out to find the gene that was driving his cancer.

By sequencing the genes of his cancer and those of healthy cells, they were able to zero in on the gene and find a new drug that specifically targeted it, said Elaine Mardis, PhD, during the 9th Annual Health Disparities Conference. Although the drug had never been used before to treat adult acute lymphoblastic leukemia, they were able to get permission to try it.

“Fourteen days later he was in remission,” said Dr. Mardis, Co-Director of The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. “And he is still alive today.”

As keynote speaker for the conference focusing on “The Role of Genomics in Eliminating Health Disparities,” Dr. Mardis spoke on how genomic sequencing is changing the way cancer and other diseases are treated.

Much has changed since the human genome was sequenced a decade ago, she said. Then there was little understanding as to why some cancers melted away, while others did not respond to drugs, said Dr. Mardis, Professor of Genetics and Molecular Microbiology.

Today, more patients are being treated with drugs based on their specific tumor and genetic makeup. In the case of melanoma, cells from a patient’s own body are being used to create a vaccine that stimulates immunity and treats the cancer.

“This sounds futuristic,” Dr. Mardis said. “But it’s actually being used now.”

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