Dr. Nagourney's Blog

In Cancer Research: An Awakening?

By Robert A. Nagourney, MD

In 2005, as the Iraq War reached a low point with casualties mounting and public support dwindling, Sunni tribesman in the Anbar Province arose to confront the enemy. Joining together as an ad hoc army these fighters turned the tide of the war and achieved victories in the face of what had appeared at the time, to be overwhelming odds.

I am reminded of this by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal by Peter Huber and Paul Howard of the Manhattan Institute that examined the bureaucracy of drug development.

It raised the question: Are new cancer treatments failures or is the process by which they are approved a failure?

They describe “exceptional responders” defined as patients who show unexpected benefits from drug treatments.

Using molecular profiles, they opine, scientists will unravel the mysteries of these individuals and usher in an era of personalized medicine. Thus, rigid protocols that use drugs based upon tumor type e.g. lung vs. colon fail because they do not incorporate the features that make each patient unique – an awakening.

Bladder Cancer Patient Responds to a Kidney Cancer Drug

The example cited is from Memorial Sloan-Kettering where a patient with bladder cancer had an unexpected response to the drug Everolimus (approved for kidney cancer). Subsequent deep sequencing identified a genetic signature associated with sensitivity to this drug.

While it is a nice story, I already knew it very well because it had been repeated many times before and would in the past have been dismissed as an “anecdote.” It is precisely because of its rarity that it has been repeated so many times.

The WSJ analysis strikes a familiar chord.

For decades, we have decried the failure of rigid clinical trials that underestimate a patient’s unique biology yet cost millions, even billions of dollars, while denying worthy candidates new treatments under stultifying disease-specific designs.

We pioneered phenotypic (functional) analyses (the EVA-PCD platform) to examine whole cell models as we explored drug response profiles, novel combinations and new targets. It is regrettable that these WSJ authors, having raised such important issues, then stumble into the same tantalizing trap of molecular diagnostics, and call for bigger, better, faster genomic analyses.

Cancer Treatments Just Need to Work

Cancer patients need to receive treatments that work.

They do not particularly care why or how they work, just that they work.

These authors seem to perpetuate the myth that we must first understand why a patient responds before we can treat them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Alexander Fleming knew little about bacterial cell wall physiology when he discovered penicillin in 1928, and William Withering knew nothing about the role of muscle enzymes in congestive heart failure when he discovered digoxin extracts in 1785.

Would anyone argue that we should have waited decades, even centuries to apply manifestly effective therapies to patients because we did not have the “genes sequenced?’

We may be witness to an awakening in cancer drug development.

It may be that a new understanding of individualized patient response will someday provide better outcomes, but platforms with the proven capacity to connect patients to available treatments should be promoted and applied today.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments.