Is Personalized Medicine Right for Your Cancer Treatment?

By

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

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Learn these interesting facts about holistic cancer care.
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Traditional cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery, have been used to fight cancer since the early 20th century. But as our understanding of cancer evolves, the focus is shifting toward more personalized cancer treatments, also known as precision medicine. In this newer approach to patient care, your doctor selects treatments based on tumor genes, which are unique to you. Since treatment is based on your particular genes, a personalized medicine treatment that works well for you may not be as beneficial to someone else.

It’s now known that tumors have certain genetic changes that make them different from normal, healthy cells. These changes cause your cancer to grow, evade detection, and spread. Using a precision medicine approach to treatment, your doctor may be able to develop a plan to more effectively treat you by targeting your cancer’s specific genetic changes. However, it’s important to understand that some types of cancer respond to this type of therapy better than others. Because research into personalized medicine is still evolving, be sure to talk with your doctor about any options that may be right for you.

Targeted Therapies Offer More Personalized Medicine

The field of precision medicine is still relatively new, but already many hospitals are using targeted therapies to treat various types of cancer. These treatments work by controlling the growth, division, and spread of cancer cells. Some targeted therapies also influence cellular signals, or certain chemical messengers released from cells, that prevent tumor cells from multiplying or cause the cancer cells to die.

Because cancer is such a complex condition, targeted treatments aren’t a one-size-fits-all option. Your cancer may include multiple genetic factors that need to be targeted for treatment to be effective. These factors could include genetic mutations caused by damage from environmental sources, such as ultraviolet (UV) light, tobacco smoke, or viruses. Or, they could be mutations that were passed on to you from your parents or grandparents.

Currently, there are several types of targeted therapies that are used in personalized medicine.

  • Monoclonal antibodies — this treatment works by targeting specific cellular components, called antigens, that appear on the surface of cancer cells, or in areas of the body surrounding tumors. In healthy tissues, antigens are used as a signal to alert your immune system, letting your body know there is a foreign invader, like a virus, or other harmful object to fight. Monoclonal antibodies are used to identify cancer antigens, thereby recruiting your immune system to fight and destroy your cancer; using your own body to fight the disease.

  • Angiogenesis inhibitors — in order to grow and spread, tumors need access to nutrients and oxygen. Normally, cancer cells get both from small networks of blood vessels that grow in and around tumors. This type of cancer treatment stops the formation of these new blood vessels, cutting cancer off from what it needs to keep growing.

  • Apoptosis-inducing medications — normally, cells die when their DNA is too damaged to repair. This is a natural process that occurs throughout your life. Cancer cells already have damaged DNA, and this approach to personalized medicine can be used to influence how certain cells send chemical messages that control the process of cellular death.

  • Hormone treatments — some cancers are especially sensitive to hormones and require them to spread. This type of treatment can help stop your body from making the hormones your cancer needs to grow. They may also work by interfering with the action of certain hormones within your body.

  • Signal transduction inhibitors — all cells in your body, including cancer cells, respond to a variety of signals from their surrounding environment in the body. Some types of cancer receive inappropriate signals that cause the cancer cells to grow continuously. These treatments work to stop this signaling, which can help stop the growth of certain types of cancer, like breast or lung cancer.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Aug 25, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Radiation. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-radiation.html
  2. Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-chemo.html
  3. Evolution of Cancer Treatments: Targeted Therapy. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/history-of-cancer/cancer-treatment-targeted-therapy.html
  4. Understanding Precision Medicine in Cancer Treatment. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/precision-medicine
  5. What is Personalized Cancer Medicine? American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/personalized-and-targeted-therapies/what-personalized-cancer-medicine
  6. Understanding Targeted Therapy. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/personalized-and-targeted-therapies/understanding-targeted-therapy
  7. Monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy/monoclonal-antibodies.html
  8. Targeted Cancer Therapies. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/targeted-therapies/targeted-therapies-fact-sheet
  9. The Genetics of Cancer. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/cancer-basics/genetics/genetics-cancer

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