Dr. Nagourney's Blog

Stalking Leukemia Genes One Whole Genome at a Time

By Robert A. Nagourney, MD

An article by Gina Kolata on the front page of the July 8, Sunday New York Times, “In Leukemia Treatment, Glimpses of the Future,” tells the heartwarming story of a young physician afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Diagnosed in medical school, the patient initially achieved a complete remission, only to suffer a recurrence that led him to undergo a bone marrow transplant. When the disease recurred a second time years later, his options were more limited.

As a researcher at Washington University himself, this young physician had access to the most sophisticated genomic analyses in the world.

His colleagues and a team of investigators put all 26 of the University’s gene sequencing machines to work around the clock to complete a whole genome sequence, in search of a driver mutation.

The results identified FLT3.

This mutation had previously been described in acute leukemia and is known to be a target for several available small molecule tyrosine kinase inhibitors. After arranging to procure sunitinib (Sutent, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals), the patient began treatment and had a prompt and complete remission, one that he continues to enjoy to this day.

The story is one of triumph over adversity and exemplifies genomic analysis in the identification of targets for therapy.

What it also represents is a labor-intensive, costly, and largely unavailable approach to cancer management. While good outcomes in leukemia have been the subject of many reports, imatinib for CML among them, this does not obtain for most of the common, solid tumors that lack targets for these new silver bullets.

Indeed, the article itself describes unsuccessful efforts on the part of Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens, to probe their own genomes for effective treatments. More to the point, few patients have access to 26 gene-sequencing machines capable of identifying genomic targets.

A professor of bioethics from the University of Washington, Wiley Burke, raised additional ethical questions surrounding the availability of these approaches only to the most connected and wealthiest of individuals.

While brute force sequencing of human genomes are becoming more popular, the approach lacks scientific elegance. Pattern recognition yielding clues, almost by accident, relegates scientists to the role of spectator and removes them from hypothesis-driven investigation that characterized centuries of successful research.

The drug sunitinib is known for its inhibitory effect upon VEGF 1, 2 and 3, PDGFr, c-kit and FLT3.

Recognizing the attributes of this drug and being well aware of C-KIT and FLT3’s role in leukemias, we regularly add sunitinib into our leukemia tissue cultures to test for cytotoxic effects in malignantly transformed cells.

The insights gained enable us to simply and quickly gauge the likelihood of efficacy in patients for drugs like sunitinib.

Once again we find that expensive, difficult tests seem preferable to inexpensive, simple ones.

While the technocrats at the helm of oncology research promise to drive the price of these tests down to a level of affordability, everyday we wait 1,581 Americans die of cancer. Perhaps, while we await perfect tests that might work tomorrow, we should use good tests that work today.