Friday, July 13, 2012

War on Cancer

As a statistician applying my research to cancer genetics it is always encouraging to see stories like this that make me feel sometimes all this work isn't for nothing.

The article published last week in the NY Times describes the story of a woman who was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma in which white blood cells (T cells) become cancerous and move to the skin.  Faced with a disease with no cure and no standard treatment, she was able to keep the cancer at bay using chemotherapy for five years.  At that point, her health took a turn for the worse and her son who worked at Illumina, which produces some of the latest sequencing technology, decided to quit his job and help his mom full-time by sequencing her genome.  After sequencing her normal and tumor DNA, they found 18K differences (or mutations) with no known significance for disease.  In the analysis of her DNA, the researchers found two genes fused together forcing the growth signals in cancer cells to be reversed: the signal to stop was forcing the cells to grow and the signal to grow was forcing the cells to stop growth.  The researchers decided to give her a new melanoma drug ipilimumab which forces normal T cells to grow, in hopes of stopping the growth of the tumor cells. The drug performed beautifully keeping the cancerous T cells at bay for 8 weeks before the cancer came back and ultimately she passed away a few weeks later.

41 years ago Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971 which started a "war on cancer". The goal was to find a "cure for cancer" by increasing the funding toward cancer research and find more effective treatments.  As defined by PubMed "cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body".  Cancer is not just one disease, in fact it is the word we have for hundreds of diseases we label as 'cancer'.  When people talk about "curing cancer", it suggests that once a treatment/cure for one type of cancer is found, it should theoretically be applied to another form of cancer.  In my experience this is definitely not the case.  Every type of cancer is unique in its etiology and treatment.  It is true that some drugs today developed for one type of cancer can be applied to another type of cancer because the target molecule may happen be the same for two different cancers, but this is a separate idea than the finding a "cure for cancer".

I work with several groups of researchers in the Texas Medical Center at University of Texas MD Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital who are all trying to exactly this.  They are sequencing the genomes of individuals affected by a particular disease and trying to find the causal mutation or reason for the disease.  My small contribution comes in helping to analyze the results that come out of the sequencing.  Bioinformatics attempts to take in the large amount of sequencing data and make sense of it.  This is by no means easy and will take much longer to properly analyze the data than to just sequence it.  But, even with these small steps I look forward to more success stories like these and seeing further progress being made in the war on cancer.


  1. Awesome story! Even though there is no one "cure" for cancer, this gives hope.

  2. It's frustrated to see after so much money invested on genetics so few discoveries can actually be used on real patients. Thanks for reminding us there's still hope and progress!