By Alison Bruzek
Cancer, whether in the pancreas, the ovaries or the liver, can take on different characteristics and spread in different ways. That’s why, unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all drug to help patients fight back.
But a new, quick test can personalize treatment and help oncologists choose which chemotherapy route to take.
The test, called Dynamic BH3 Profiling, quickly predicts whether or not a drug will work for a patient by first trying that drug on a tumor sample in the lab. A paper describing the method, which researchers say could become more widespread within a couple of years, was published in the journal Cell this week.
The idea echoes how we choose the most effective antibiotics, says study author Dr. Anthony Letai, a cancer researcher with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“When we’re trying to choose antibiotics for people … we simply isolate the bacteria that’s causing the problem and expose it to all the drugs that are available,” he says. Then researchers choose the drugs that best put a lid on the multiplying bacteria.
“That has operated for many, many decades,” Letai says, “so we thought, why not do that for cancer cells?”
Letai’s team isn’t the first to think of this strategy. “People have tried to do this kind of thing in years past but there have been a variety of advances in technology … that make it more feasible this time around,” says Levi Garraway, a cancer researcher at Dana-Farber who was not involved with the study.
What’s different about Letai’s work is its speed: It can quickly determine whether a drug, or combination of drugs, is working. The test looks not at when the tumor cells are dead, but rather when they’re beginning to die.
The ‘Death Switch’
The researchers found that there is a point of no return, a threshold of doom, when cells begin to die that is indicative of their actual death. The team looked at varying types of cancer cells (breast, lung, melanoma) and saw that there was essentially a death switch that when flipped on, ensured the cell’s destruction.
Examining if a cancer drug flipped this switch, instead of waiting to see if the cells would eventually die, allowed the researchers to know, in about 16 to 24 hours, which drugs were working. Continue reading