ISIS Report 02/04/12
Cancer Cure & Prevention
Personalized Medicine for Cancer Fact or Fiction?
Companies are marketing genetic profiling to provide
personalized cancer therapy, but cancers show numerous mutations that differ
not only between individual patients but also from one region to another in a
single tumour Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
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Cancer as genetic disease dominate approach to therapy
For many years, cancer therapy concentrated on attacking DNA
replication, as cancer cells proliferate and replicate their DNA rapidly. But
these generally cytotoxic drugs also harmed cells that divide rapidly under
normal circumstances such as bone marrow cells, cells in the digestive tract
and hair follicles, with inevitable side-effects: decrease in blood cells and
immune suppression, inflammation of the gut, and hair loss .
More recently, newer therapies target
the abnormal biology of cancer cells based on the belief that cancer is a
genetic disease involving mutations in key ‘gate-keeper’ cancer genes
(oncogenes). These include signal transduction and protein turnover pathways,
apoptosis (programmed cell suicide) and signalling receptors. Some of these
agents exhibited antitumour activity and have been approved for cancer therapy
, and new candidates are popping up all the time .
Still, there have been no cures
in advanced cancers, though it is hoped that some combinations of agents may do
Nevertheless, the field of cancer therapy has
been gripped by an “overoptimism” that soon, patients with a tumour will
undergo a needle biopsy, and a personalized treatment will be devised on the
basis of the distinctive genetic characteristics of the tumour. Already,
several companies are marketing tests for the genetic signature of a tumour,
with the expectation that the genetic signature will determine the treatment
and predict treatment outcome.
But a serious flaw in that imagined future of
cancer therapy based on personalized medicine is the underestimation of tumour
genetic heterogeneity; not just between tumours, but heterogeneity within
an individual tumour. This was highlighted in an Editorial in the 8 March 2012
issue of the New England Journal of Medicine .
Profuse genetic heterogeneity between tumours and within
In the same issue of the journal, a team of 30 researchers
led by Marco Gerlinger from the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute
mapped out in detail how heterogeneous a single tumour can be . Tumour
samples were obtained from four patients with renal-cell cancer before and
after treatment, with multiple samples taken from each patient’s primary and
metastatic tumour sites. The team carried out exome sequencing (sequencing of
all regions that code for proteins, roughly 1 % of the entire human genome),
chromosome aberration analysis and ploidy profiling (to determine how many sets
of chromosomes are present instead of the usual two). They also characterized
the consequences of genetic heterogeneity within a single tumour using
immunohistochemical analysis, mutation functional analysis and profile of
messenger RNA expression.
Over a hundred mutations are typically found
in each patient (just in the coding regions of the genome; over the entire
genome it would typically be thousands), and a branching phylogenetic
(evolutionary) tree can be drawn based on shared mutations in different
regions. About two thirds of the mutations found in single biopsies were not
uniformly detectable throughout all the sampled regions of the same patient’s
tumour. Different regions of the same tumour gave a “favourable prognosis” and
an “unfavourable prognosis” gene profile. There is no way a single tumour
biopsy – the standard of tumour diagnosis and the cornerstone of
personalized-medicine – can be considered to represent the genetic profile of the
tumour, much less so, the cancer patient.
To make things worse, there are widespread
alterations in the total number of chromosomes in the tumour cells (aneuploidy),
and many allelic imbalances are found in which one allele of a gene pair is
lost, either due to chromosome loss, or difference in gene imprinting that
alter gene expression.
Another finding is that different
regions of the tumour have different mutations in the very same genes
(convergent evolution), suggesting that parallel alterations in epigenetic
mechanisms (not immediately involving gene mutations) and signal transduction
have taken place to ensure the tumour’s survival.
All that is part and parcel of
the fluid genome of cells responding to their microenvironment within the body
(see  Living with the
Fluid Genome, ISIS publication). But most cancer researchers have not faced
up to the possibility that most, if not all the genetic mutations and genomic
instability are effects, rather than causes of cancer (see later).
We shall look at cancer prevention and cure
in depth in this special series of articles.
Personalized medicine in jeopardy?
Clearly, the lab findings create practical problems for
personalised medicine in cancer therapy, as pointed out by both commentator and
researchers [4, 5]. Sampling bias in biopsies could fail to identify key cancer
markers and contribute to selection of drug resistant clones, or else fail to
predict drug resistance to therapy.
Despite that, neither the Editorial nor the
researchers give up hope on personalized medicine. The identification of common
mutations in the trunk of the tumour’s phylogenetic tree confirm that the
genetic lesions in the original tumour cells are consistently expressed, such
as the von Hippel-Lindau gene in renal-cell cancer, and may be a more robust
target for therapy. In addition, the genes affected by convergent evolution may
be suitable targets for functional inhibition or restoration.
“However”, the Editorial
concludes , “the simple view of directing therapy on the basis of genetic
tumour markers is probably too simplistic.”
Cancer is not a genetic disease
There is, of course, the possibility that the genetic
approach is misplaced. The gene mutations, even those in common ‘gate-keeper’
genes could be effects of a more fundamental cause. This is entirely likely
given the fluidity of the genome, the ease with which genes can be silenced or
activated, and both RNA and DNA sequence changes can occur in response to the
environment as described in detail in my book . It would also be consistent
with the evidence that the causes of cancers are overwhelmingly environmental.
An increase in somatic mutation rate provoked as the result of a stress
response, for example, could explain why numerous different mutational changes are
typically found from one individual cancer patient to the next, and even within
a single tumour. Personalized medicine in cancer therapy may well be extremely
time-consuming and costly, if not downright misdirected. Cancer cells under
attack in one pathway can switch to another pathway, or else develop drug
resistance that enable them to survive and multiply, as bitter experience in
cancer therapy has revealed  .
There is evidence in support of the view that
cells become cancerous as the result of epigenetic ‘adaptive’ mutations in
response to chronic stress or environmental stimuli that promote cell
proliferation ( Cancer an
Epigenetic Disease, SiS 54).
Furthermore, by far the most
general manifestation of cancer is an abnormality in energy metabolism ( Cancer a Redox
Disease, SiS 54), which may lend itself to affordable and
safer therapies for all (see  Does DCA Cure Cancer?
There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment
|Rory Short Comment left 2nd April 2012 17:05:06|
A very interesting idea indeed and it certainly links in my mind with the increasing level of environmental pollutants.
|Dr. Michael Godfrey Comment left 2nd April 2012 21:09:21|
The continued search for the patentable "quick fix" and the implied cause being the patient's so-called genetic defects will continue to fail as the accumulating evidence confirms that at least 90% of cancers have environmental causes. As one example - high levels of (dental)transitional metals and xenoestrogens (parabens)have both been found in breast cancers.