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Hope and hype in genomics and “personalized medicine”

“Personalized medicine.” You’ve probably heard the term. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days and refers to a vision of future medicine in which therapies are much more tightly tailored to individual patients than they currently are. That’s not to say that as physicians we haven’t practiced personalized medicine before; certainly we have. However it has only been in the last decade or so that our understanding of genomics, systems biology, and cell signaling have evolved to the point where the vision of personalized medicine based on each patient’s genome and biology might be achievable within my lifetime.

I was thinking about personalized medicine recently because of the confluence of several events. First, I remembered a post I wrote late last year about integrating patient values and experience into the decision process regarding treatment plans. Second, a couple of months ago, Skeptical Inquirer published an execrably nihilistic article by Dr. Reynold Spector in Skeptical Inquirer in which he declared personalized medicine to be one of his “seven deadly medical hypotheses,” even though he never actually demonstrated why it is deadly or that it’s even really a hypothesis. Come to think of it, with maybe–and I’m being very generous here–one exception, that pretty much describes all of Dr. Spector’s “seven deadly medical hypotheses”: Each is either not a hypothesis, not deadly, or is neither of the two. Third, this time last week I was attending the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Orlando. I don’t really like Orlando much (if you’re not into Disney and tourist traps, it’s not the greatest town to hang out in for four days), but I do love me some good cancer science. One thing that was immediately apparent to me from the first sessions on Sunday and perusing the educational sessions on Saturday was that currently the primary wave in cancer research is all about harnessing the advances in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and systems and computational biology, as well as the technologies such as next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques to understand the biology of each cancer and thereby target therapies more closely to what biological abnormalities drive each cancer. You can get an idea of this from the promotional video the AACR played between its plenary sessions:

Which is actually a fairly good short, optimistic version of my post Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? As I mentioned before, with this year being the 40th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, as December approaches expect a lot of articles and press stories asking that very question, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about this this year.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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The complexity of cancer: A science-based view

Last week I participated in a panel discussion at NECSS with John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, and Steve Novella, who reported on the conference last Monday. What I mentioned to some of the attendees is that I had managed to combine NECSS with a yearly ritual that I seldom miss, namely the yearly meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting. There are two huge cancer meetings every year, AACR and the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). AACR is the meeting dedicated to basic and translational research; ASCO, as the word “clinical” in its name implies, is devoted mainly to clinical research. Personally, being a translational researcher myself and a surgeon, I tend to prefer the AACR meeting over ASCO, not because ASCO isn’t valuable, but mainly because ASCO tends to be devoted mostly to medical oncology and chemotherapy, which are not what I do as a surgeon. Each meeting draws between 10,000 to 15,000 or even more clinicians and researchers dedicated to the eradication of cancer.

Having taken the Acela train from the NECSS meeting in New York straight to Washington, DC for the AACR meeting, I couldn’t help but think a bit about the juxtaposition of our discussion of the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia with the hard core science being discussed at AACR. One session in particular at AACR highlighted what is one of the most significant differences between science-based medicine and the various forms of “alternative” medicine that we discuss here on SBM on such a regular basis. That difference, quite simply put, is the difference between the simple and the complex. “Alternative” medicine supporters often scoff at practitioners of science-based oncology, asking why we don’t have a “cure for cancer” yet—as if cancer were a single disease!—or why we haven’t made much more progress since President Richard Nixon declared “war on cancer” back in 1971. One part of the answer is that cancer is incredibly complicated. Not only is it not a single disease, but each variety of cancer is in and of itself incredibly complicated as well. To steal from Douglas Adams, cancer is complicated. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly complicated it is. I mean, you may think algebra is complicated, but that’s just peanuts to cancer.
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Posted in: Cancer

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