The “arms race” in the war on cancer adds new weapon to the arsenal: personal genome sequencing

Large medical centers across the U.S. are investing in a burgeoning area of healthcare for their cancer patients: “precision medicine.” Substantial investments are being made to not only build new laboratory facilities and purchase research equipment, but also to staff these new facilities. Universities like Weill Cornell Medical College, Harvard Medical School, and Johns Hopkins University are joining clinical centers like Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in building an infrastructure for personalized medicine with the hope of playing a bigger role in the development of new drugs.

This approach is building off of years of federal investment in genomics research. First, the Human Genome Project paved the way by providing a reference point for all future DNA sequencing. The National Institutes of Health has been a major source of federal funding for sequencing efforts in numerous types of cancer; helping doctors prescribe chemotherapy tailored to the weakness of individual tumors. Now with the possibility of sequencing each patient and identifying each cancerous mutation, physicians can better target tumor cells. Read more about advances in genomic medicine in a recent New York Times interview with Dr. Eric Green, director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

However, some critics are questioning the social worth of a huge investment in precision medicine in this New York Times article. With the cost of genome sequencing ranging between $5,000 and $10,000 per patient—usually not covered by insurance—how much benefit can be gained from this expense? On average, each person carries around 20 different genetic alterations that could be harmful and a much larger number of genetic variations exist that contribute to that person’s uniqueness. Genomic researchers are still grappling with the problem of universally identifying which mutations are major problems and which ones might confer a slight disease risk or none at all. Genetic diseases affecting the brain and nerves are particularly difficult to tackle and represent just one area where basic research is still greatly needed.  Thankfully, in the field of cancer research, there is a lot more information available to utilize genomic sequencing in patient care. Major investments in precision cancer treatment, like those being made at Cornell, Harvard, Sloan-Kettering and Hopkins, will build on that knowledge and contribute even more information for future researchers and patients.

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