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No longer science fiction: cancer genomics is coming to the UCSD Moores Cancer Center

7 January 2012

Curing cancer is hard. Perhaps that’s a gross understatement? I was once sat next to a lovely businesswoman on a plane who asked: “You know, we’ve put men on the moon. Why haven’t we cured cancer?” I just shrugged my shoulders and replied “Because curing cancer is harder than putting men on the moon?”

There’s a pervasive dark humor among cancer researchers and cancer clinicians. It’s a field that sees infrequent, small progressions compared to to many other endeavors to a problem that has strong emotional resonance to dire needs of patients fighting what Siddhartha Mukherjee correctly called “The Emperor of all Maladies.”

So, when I occasionally see something uplifting in my field it really sticks. The UCSD Moores Cancer Center recently hired Dr. Scott Lippman as our new director, and he recently gave a lunchtime talk to an overcrowded commons room filled with scientists, students, clinicians, directors, and everything in between. The initiative My Answer to Cancer is audacious: to set up many, many new clinical trials to pioneer the use of cancer genomics for the individualized treatment of cancer.

Image: The Moores Cancer Center will be pioneering new clinical trials using cancer genomics as a tour de force. My lab is upstairs. I’m only a little proud…

What is this cancer genomics thing, and why is this goofy scientific apprentice so excited about it? In cancer research circles it’s a borderline mythical tactic previously confined to science-fiction, the type that researchers dream about, but the dark sarcasm of the field prevents anyone from getting too excited. It would be like commanding a medieval siege against a heavily fortified city, but knowing ahead of time that under the east wall is a secret access tunnel that can be exploited with the right tools. Cancer genomics has always had that aura of potential to be exactly that; the filter that makes the enemy’s weaknesses painfully visible for exploitation.

A genome is the sum of all sequences of all genes in an individual. It’s a mind-boggling amount of information; in the second decade of the 21st century genomes are commonly communicated between researchers by hard discs in physical mail to save time because of the amount of bandwidth otherwise required.

Until recently, it was prohibitively expensive to do this for anyone. Not anymore. In fact, it’s within reach for one to consider doing this for both a patient’s genome AND their cancer. It would literally single out how the cancer differs from the patient, knowledge that was previously unthinkable, and immediately imply the correct tools (therapeutics, weapons?) to cripple an individual’s cancer with minimal side effects to the patient.

Dr. Lippman wants to do exactly this. It’s audacious, but the unique private sector and industry collaborations immediately available to the MCC here in San Diego make this vision much less opaque, if not readily feasible, despite my dark sarcasm.

2013 is looking to be a big year for the Moores Cancer Center. I’m really excited to see what comes of this.

Though I do have reservations and criticisms about current technological and methological limitations, I will outline these in a future post and not damper the sunny glimmers of progression and hope that I wish to share with you, dear reader!



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