Is Cancer a Genetic Disease?

I recently had the opportunity to meet two charming young patients: One, a 32-year-old female with an extremely rare malignancy that arose in her kidney and the other a 33-year-old gentleman with widely metastatic sarcoma.

Both patients had obtained expert opinions from renowned cancer specialists and both had undergone aggressive multi-modality therapies including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Although they suffered significant toxicities, both of their diseases had progressed unabated. Each arrived at my laboratory seeking assistance for the selection of effective treatment.

Sarcoma 130412.01With the profusion of genomic analyses available today at virtually every medical center, it came as no surprise that both patients had undergone genetic profiling. What struck me were the results. The young woman had “no measurable genetic aberrancies” from a panoply of 370 cancer-causing exomes, while the young man’s tumor revealed no somatic mutations and only two germ-line SNV’s (single nucleotide variants) from a 50 gene NextGen sequence, neither of which had any clinical or therapeutic significance.

What are we to make of these findings? By conventional wisdom, cancer is a genetic disease. Yet, neither of these patients carried detectable “driver” mutations. Are we to conclude that the tumors that invaded the cervical vertebra of the young woman, requiring an emergency spinal fusion, or the large mass in the lung of the young man are not “cancers”? It would seem that if we apply contemporary dogma, these patients do not have a cancer at all. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Cancer as a disease is not a genomic phenomenon. It is a phenotypic one. As such, it is extremely likely that these patients’ tumors are successfully exploiting normal genes in abnormal ways. The small interfering RNAs or methylations or acetylation or non-coding DNA’s that conspired to create these monstrous problems are too deeply encrypted to be easily deciphered by our DNA methodologies. These changes are effectively gumming up the works of the cancer cell’s biology without leaving a fingerprint.  Slide Detail-small

I have long recognized that cellular studies like the EVA-PCD platform provide the answers, through functional profiling, that genetic analyses can only hope to detect. The assay did identify drugs active in these patients’ tumor, which will offer meaningful benefit, despite the utter lack of genetic targets. Once again, we are educated by cellular biology in the absence of genomic insights. This leaves us with a question however – is cancer a genetic disease?

The Emperor of All Maladies’ New Clothes

Ken Burn’s series “The Emperor of All Maladies” from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same title ppbs logorovides an interesting and informative historical perspective on mankind’s efforts to confront cancer as a disease.

Beginning with ancient references to human malignancy, the series goes on to explore radical surgery and the earliest use of radiation but really gains traction in the mid-20th century with the discovery of the first chemotherapy drugs. While the nitrogen mustard derivatives were being studied under a veil of military secrecy, Dr. Sidney Farber in Boston explored the B-vitamin analogue, aminopterin, for the treatment of childhood leukemia. (You can read more about this in my book Outliving Cancer.)

Through the ensuing decades, seemingly stunning victories ultimately fell in crushing defeats, while the promise of single agents, then multi-drug combinations, followed by dose-intensive therapies, and finally bone marrow transplantation yielded few cures but delivered ever increasing toxicities. Clifton Leaf, a cancer survivor himself who created a stir with his controversial 2003 Fortune Magazine article entitled “Why We Are Losing the War on Cancer and How to Win It” described his own disappointment with the slow pace of progress.

Screen shot Emperor of All MaladiesThe last episode examined our growing understanding of human genomics and segued by interviews with Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute; and Harold Varmus, the current NCI director; to Michael Bishop, Eric Lander and Francis Collins who luxuriated in the clinical potential of human genomics and the coming era of big science.

The final part was an interview with Steven Rosenberg, one of the earliest pioneers in immunotherapy and Carl June whose groundbreaking work with chimeric antigen receptor T-cells is among the most recent applications of this important field.

The take-home message would seem to be that despite the fits and starts we are now at the dawn of a new age of big science, big data and genomic breakthroughs. What was missing however was an examination of where we had gone wrong. It would seem that the third rail for this community is an honest assessment of how a small coterie of investigators who championed only certain ways of thinking over all others commandeered all the money, grants, publications, chairmanships and public attention, while patients were left to confront a disease from which survival has changed very little, at ever increasing costs and toxicities.

Another thing that came through was the very human side of cancer as a disease and the kindness and emotional support that family members and parents provided to those afflicted. I couldn’t help but feel that these individuals had been cheated: cheated of the lives of their family members, cheated of the resources that could have pursued other options and cheated of the well-being that these poisonous and dose-intensive regimens rained upon them in their last days.

As science has become the new religion and scientists the new gurus, one message that resonated was that many of these gurus were false prophets. They are too self-absorbed to question their own dogmatic belief systems in dose-intensity or multi-agent combinations, all of which fell painfully by the way side as the next therapeutic fad emerged. Will our current love affair with the gene prove to be little more than the most current example of self-congratulatory science conducted in the echo chamber of modern academia?

Victories against cancer will be won incrementally. Each patient must be addressed as an individual, unique in their biology and unique in their response probability. No gene profile, heat map, DNA sequence or transcriptomic profile has answered the questions that every patient asks; “What treatment is best for me?” Dr. Mukherjee himself used the analogy of the blind men and the elephant. Unfortunately, there was little discussion of how much that parable may apply to our current scientific paradigms.

It is time for patients to demand better and refuse to participate in cookie-cutter protocols.
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Physicians should become more familiar with the fundamentals of physiology and biochemistry to better understand the principles of cancer prevention at the level of diet and lifestyle.

Finally, while we wait with bated breath, for the arrival of glorious gene profiles widely touted as the future answer to all of cancer’s most vexing questions, patients should throw off the yoke of one-size-fits-all approaches and demand laboratory platforms, such as the EVA-PCD assay, that are available today to make better use of existing treatments.

Interview with CCTV Now Available

nagourney3This Saturday, April 4, my interview on CCTV’s program FULL FRAME will be aired.
The Mike Walters interview focuses on my study of human cancer using the 3-D microspheroid EVA-PCD platform. We review the excellent patient outcomes associated with the use of this technology to select chemotherapy drugs and targeted agents.

The program streams live online Sat. at 4 p.m.

The program is already available on the CCTV menu of videos at:   Scroll down the list of available programming until you see Cancer Treatments: One size does not fit all.

CCTV is an international network with millions of viewers. The program, Full Frame, is a news magazine format that conducts in-depth interviews involving current topics of interest.