Michael Bolick and Jeff Edenfield: Cancer medicine takes major leap forward

We’re looking for a way to improve your odds. It’s as simple as that.

Personalized cancer medicine in our region took a major leap forward last week thanks to an expanded collaboration between Lab21 and the Institute for Translational Oncology Research (ITOR), the cancer research arm of the Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center.

The Lab21 Clinical Genomics Center at ITOR will give local cancer patients the opportunity to get real-time feedback and treatment plans tied to their cancer’s specific DNA signature. While the new technology will require several months of development and validation, broad patient use is expected by next year.

GHS will be one of the first sites in the country to bring this next-generation gene-sequencing technology into the cancer clinic. Ultimately, it’s designed to become an integrated part of the evaluation of all cancer patients cared for in the GHS system. In essence, every patient who consents to participate in this initiative will have the opportunity to benefit from this leading-edge genomic medicine technology.

But how does this help improve the odds in a patient’s favor?

For the first time, physicians will be able to know quickly what type of genetic mistakes are present in the cancer and can direct therapy specifically to those genetic mutations. We expect the in-house technology to give us answers in as little as 24 hours instead of waiting for several weeks to get results back.

Current treatments help approximately one third of patients with advanced cancer. But personalized cancer therapy holds the promise of telling us which drugs can most aggressively target each patient’s specific cancer, thereby upping the patient’s odds significantly.

To be sure, we do not have all the answers yet. While we can see into the DNA code of a patient’s cancer, we may not yet have access to a drug developed to treat that specific cancer. Placing this technology in the clinic certainly brings us much closer than we’ve been in the past by enabling a new generation of clinical trials.

Already, approximately 10 percent of GHS Cancer Center patients are enrolled in clinical research trials, as opposed to the national average that hovers around 3 percent. Imagine how many more trials GHS will be able to offer by working with leading-edge companies to expand our range of therapies.

ITOR was formed two years ago with the goal of paving the way for breakthroughs in rapid drug development and diagnostic discovery.

It’s this extraordinary combination of research, patient care and academics that will help the GHS Cancer Center and ITOR develop into a regional cancer center unlike anything else that exists between Atlanta and Durham. The power of collaboration with private sector innovators like Lab21 and university research partners is what makes this possible.

While the leading-edge technology involved in this collaboration is incredibly innovative, so is the concept of having this resource inside a clinic where oncologists and scientists can work side-by-side to explore and validate new diagnostic and treatment strategies. Such innovative collaborations will transform healthcare and result in better care for patients in exciting new ways.

For example, after Lab21 located its U.S. headquarters in Greenville in 2009, it initially collaborated with ITOR to provide support for drug development and advanced cancer patient care. As the relationship developed, the opportunity to use next-generation sequencing as a tool in the clinic became a compelling topic of conversation. It didn’t take long for these conversations to shift to how we could work together to make this happen right here in our community.

Likewise, we believe that regional cancer care will benefit from close ties to the new University of South Carolina School of Medicine-Greenville, which opens this summer. We see an outstanding opportunity for medical students and faculty researchers to harness these new technologies in hopes of answering critical research-based questions.

Such answers can spin off even more medical breakthroughs with the potential for additional significant impact on the region and beyond.

One-third of men and one-quarter of all women in America have had cancer, meaning nearly every family you know has been affected. Treatment and the search for a cure is a long long road. Last week’s announcement is another step closer to our destination.

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