This new way to fight cancer is changing everything

SickKids has used genetic sequencing of cancers to entirely rethink how we treat cancers based on their mutations, not their location in the body.

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Having a child diagnosed with cancer is every parents’ worst nightmare, but researchers are continually developing smarter tools to fight the disease. SickKids has just published a study in the journal Cell, which could help scientists and doctors totally rethink cancer treatment.

Researchers looked at the genetic sequencing of 80,000 tumours and discovered that many cancers—five to 10 percent of children’s cancers and 17 percent of adult cancers—have more than 10 mutations per million letters of DNA. After looking at the mutations in these cancers (called hypermutants), they found patterns that revealed insights into the cancers’ cause, growth and treatments.

Uri Tabori, co-principal investigator of the study and staff physician in haematology/oncology at SickKids, says that looking at the mutation patterns has taught researchers a new language. “When a scientist looks at a tumour, it’s like reading a new book. It tells us a story.” Part of that story is what kinds of therapy a cancer does or doesn’t respond to.

The findings might change how doctors approach cancer altogether. Currently, they categorize cancers by the types of tissue where the malignant cells are found (ie. brain cancer, stomach cancer). But soon, doctors might classify cancers by the number and type of genetic mutations they carry, and use those classifications to fight the disease in a more strategic way.

The researchers noted eight different mutation patterns, which exist across all different kinds of hypermutant cancers. “If you find them, you can treat them the same way regardless of the type of the cancer,” says Tabori. For example, “We may treat a leukemia patient and a brain tumour patient in the same way—and prevent [them from getting] the wrong therapy.”

But better treatment strategies aren’t the only benefit of these new findings. Adam Shlien, co-principal investigator of the study and associate director of translational genetics and scientist in genetics and genome biology at SickKids, says reading the mutation patterns can also help scientists determine underlying causes of these cancers. That means doctors can tell when it’s a hereditary mutation that’s predisposing a patient to cancer and then monitor them for future cancers and even test their family for the same mutation.

The best part is, hospitals across the country are already doing the genetic sequencing needed to figure out if a cancer your child has falls into one of these categories. At SickKids, the Kicks Kids Cancer Sequencing Program (KiCS) can help kids with these traditionally hard-to-treat cancers. Of course, not all cancers are hypermutants, but if your family is facing cancer, ask your doctor about trying genetic sequencing to determine if this new way of fighting the disease could help you.

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