The promise of personalized cancer treatment

July 22, 2011

The Wall Street Journal has recently devoted some coverage to dramatic advances in the field of personalized oncology, in which genomic responses to therapies are leading to breakthroughs in cancer treatment.  One of our Florida-based portfolio companies, MolecularMD, provides highly validated, standardized pharmacogenomic tests that support regulatory approval and clinical adoption of such targeted cancer treatments.

MolecularMD is a vital part of the growing prominence and promise of the biotech industry in Florida, and is led by CEO Sheridan Snyder and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Brian Druker.  Mr. Snyder is a renowned leader in the biotechnology industry and behind several previous successful start-ups in the field, including Genzyme (NASDAQ: GENZ) where he served as Chairman, CEO, and President.  Dr. Druker is a recipient of the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for his critical role in the development of Gleevec, a drug featured on the cover of Time magazine and described as a “magic bullet” that “convert(ed) a fatal cancer into a manageable chronic condition.”

Below you can find excerpts from the recent coverage of personalized oncology in the WSJ.  The National Comprehensive Cancer Network provides an introduction to the topic of biomarkers and targeted therapy here.

(For those who would like to enjoy the inspiring story behind the development of Gleevec, please see A Doctor in Full from The Wall Street Journal and this interview in The New York Times.)

June 5, WSJ – Major Shift in War on Cancer:

New research is signaling a major shift in how cancer drugs are developed and patients are treated—offering the promise of personalized therapies that reach patients faster and are more effective than other medicines.

At the heart of the change: an emerging ability for researchers to use genetic information to match drugs to the biological drivers of tumors in individuals. Studies released at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology here are helping to support previous findings that personalized medicine—introduced more than a decade ago—is closer to being realized as a weapon to fight cancer.

“A pattern is developing at an accelerated pace where we are able to match genetic information about a tumor to a new agent and get results,” says John Mendelsohn, president of Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center…”We’ve never had more insight into genetic pathways and the genetics of tumors than we do now,” says Gary Gilliland, head of cancer research and development at Merck & Co. These insights are driving “an end-to-end change in the way we develop new drugs for cancer patients and the way we do business.”

By targeting mutations, researchers say fewer patients will be needed to prove the efficacy of new drugs, hastening their path to the market. In addition, fewer people will be enrolled in trials of drugs that provide them little hope of benefit.

But the use in drug development of specific genetic traits in tumors, called biomarkers, poses a maze of challenges. Many tumors are complex organisms fueled by multiple pathways. When one is disrupted even by a potent single agent, others compensate to help tumors develop resistance to treatment. Target therapies will likely be more effective when given along with similar agents or as some are used now, with existing conventional drugs… Researchers and drug companies are already working to test combinations of targeted agents. In some cases, they are collaborating with rivals. Combining agents risks increasing side effects and the cost of therapy, researchers and regulators say, and will likely require changes to current procedures for approving drugs.

June 7, WSJ – Cancer-Drug Alliances Expected to Increase

Traditionally, drug development focused on single drugs or the combination of an experimental therapy with an already approved product. Now, research into combinations of drugs is occurring at earlier stages because scientists are gaining a greater understanding of cancer, the human genome and how to attack the disease on multiple fronts…

Modern cancer drugs are often developed to hit very specific targets within the cancer cell. But when using a drug that attacks a single target, the disease often develops a resistance to the treatment and comes back in a more potent form. Attacking with multiple drugs from the beginning may be able to prevent that process.

“You don’t kill cancer in only one way,” said Paolo Paoletti, president of GlaxoSmithKline’s oncology division, which is aiming to use drug combinations at earlier stages.

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