New research from the UK takes personalized medicine to the next level: combining immunotherapy with more traditional treatments and treating colorectal cancer on a genetic level.
Bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer, is the third most common cancer in the world, according to World Cancer Research Fund International.
One in 20 people are expected to develop colorectal cancer in their lifetimes in the US, where it’s the second leading cause of death. And it’s not surprising given that its main risk factors are mostly lifestyle related: obesity, a diet high in fat, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive alcohol intake, smoking, etc.
I’ve written previously about the link between higher-than-expected mortality from colorectal cancer and poorly rated national health systems. New research takes personalized medicine to the next level: combining immunotherapy with more traditional treatments and treating colorectal cancer on a genetic level.
UK researchers use big data analysis to find new approaches to cancer treatment
A study published recently in the journal, Oncoimmunology, finds a correlation between genetic changes in bowel tumors and the body’s immune system response to cancer.
Specifically, “genetic changes in bowel tumors are linked to the way the body’s immune system responds to the cancer,” according to a press release.
To better understand this study, it helps to know a bit about how cancer develops. As cells divide naturally, or because of the presence of certain chemicals, tobacco, UV rays, etc., our genes may pick up mistakes (also known as mutations) along the way. If cells, for some reason, fail to recognize or correct for these mutations, the cell may not die when it should. This can lead to the development of cancer, according to Cancer ResearchUK.
Immunotherapies, which are still largely experimental, might target the specific mutated cells, and kill them off.
Cancer and the immune system
Immunotherapy stimulates the body’s natural immune system to fight the cancer indirectly. While investigating immune functioning may take time, according to the press release, creating a genetic profile of a patient’s tumor might inform treatment.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham took a big data approach, using a large, pre-existing database called the Cancer Genomic Atlas to study the relationship between patients’ immune systems and the genetic make-up of their bowel tumors.
According to the press release, “certain genetic flaws in bowel cancer are more likely to trigger an immune response at the site of tumors, meaning that treatments to boost this immune response further could potentially be helpful for these patients.”
The University of Birmingham researchers are part of Cancer Research UK, which is already conducting a trial that uses bowel tumor genetics to offer stratified medicine treatments to patients. This study suggests that this work might be expanded further to include immunotherapies.
Gary Middleton, Professor of Medical Oncology at the School of Cancer Sciences at the University of Birmingham, expressed optimism about the findings:
The field of immunotherapy is gaining lots of momentum and this study shows a new finding for bowel cancer. We are already using genetic profiling for stratified medicine in bowel cancer in the FOCUS4 trial. But this research indicates that we could marry immunotherapy with the work we are already doing to personalize treatment even more.
Nell Barrie, of Cancer Research UK, said:
This study shows a strong association between certain genetic profiles and immune responses, but we don't yet fully understand this link. Further research to investigate the fundamentals behind different immune responses could open new doors in drug development.
Where does immunotherapy fit?
Surgery is typically the first line of defense against colorectal cancer, and for good reason. Surgery may completely eliminate cancer in some cases in which the tumors are localized.
Chemotherapy is often administered in cases of metastatic colon cancers.
Current immunotherapies for colorectal cancer are in early-stage trials. However, big data studies like the one published in Oncoimmunology, which find correlations between specific tumors and immune systems, bring us one step closer to taking a much more personalized approach to cancer treatments.