Cancer Medicine – A Humbling Experience

In his brilliant 1998 book, Consilience, Edward O. Wilson, notes: “The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.”

This sententious point has remained a guiding principle in my thinking about human cancer. It is critically important for scientific investigators to be humble. We are explorers in a field more complex than any man-made system. We must be instructed by biology – as biological events will always find a way to outsmart our best efforts to explain them.

I was reminded of E.O. Wilson, when a colleague forwarded a recent publication from Molecular Cancer Therapy, “Molecular Profiling of Patient with Colorectal Cancer and Matched Targeted Therapy in Phase I Clinical Trials,” Dienstmann, R. et al MOL CANCER THER Sept 2012. The study conducted by the Molecular Therapeutics Research Unit at Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology in Barcelona, Spain, evaluated 254 patients for evidence of specific genetic aberrations. Their genomic analyses included, KRAS, BRAF, PIK3CA, PTEN, and pMET. Patients were then provided clinical therapy trials that matched the targeted agents (drugs with activity against the specific mutation) with their individual mutation profiles

In all, 68 patients received treatment constituting a total of 82 different molecularly targeted therapies. The clinical response rate for this population of patients who received molecularly selected therapy was 1.2%. No that isn’t a typo; it was really one point two percent.

While I applaud the scientific concept of this trial and must admit that I might have expected a somewhat higher response rate, I am not surprised by the result. In keeping with E. O. Wilson’s quote, human biology is not a puzzle designed to be solved by humans; it is instead the complex product of a billion years of evolution. Rather than demanding that cancer patients respond to those treatments we have selected for them based on genetic information, we should be instructed by the tumor’s behavior of each patient and use those insights to select amongst active drugs, whatever genetic elements they may have been originally designed to target. In my lectures, I describe this approach as the wisdom of whole cell experimental models.

I am continually humbled by the complexity of human tumor biology and delighted to have the insights that my patient’s cancer cells provide through the functional profile created by our EVA-PCD assay. Not only do I gain exciting scientific knowledge, but my patients have very good responses to the drugs we select. Not a bad day’s work.

Venture Capital Goes Genomic

During the 1960s, 70s and into the 90s, a field of investigation arose that examined buyer’s practices when it came to the consumption of goods and services. Algorithms were developed to interrogate consumer choice. One such treatise was reported in 1994 (Carson, RT et al, Experimental Analysis of Choice, Marketing Letters 1994). What these researchers explored were the motivations and forces that drove consumption. When choices are offered, decisions are driven by such factors as complexity and utility. Complexity demands personal expertise or failing that, input from experts, while utility places a value on the good or service.

A recent report from a small biotechnology company called Foundation Medicine has brought this field of endeavor to mind. It seems that this group will be offering DNA sequencing to select chemotherapy drugs. This service, currently priced at $5,800, will focus upon a small cassette of genes that they described as “key” in tumor growth. Based on their technology they have already raised $33.5 million from the likes of Third Rock, Google and Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, venture capital sources. The CEO of Foundation substantiates the approach by pointing out that fully 150 people have already used their services. One hundred and fifty!

It seems from this report that our colleagues in the field of molecular profiling have studied the dictates of “Experimental Analysis of Choice” to a “T.” What we have is the perfect storm of medical marketing.

First, the technology is so complex as to be beyond the ken of both patients and physicians alike. Thus, expertise is required and that expertise is provided by those engaged in the field. Second, the utility of drug selection is beyond reproach. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to receive a drug with a higher likelihood of a response when we consider the toxicities and costs, as well as the consequences of the wrong treatment? Dazzled by the prospect of curative outcomes, patients will, no doubt, be lining up around the block.

But, let’s deconstruct what this report is actually telling us. First, a scientifically interesting technology has been brought to the market. Second, it exists to meet an unmet need. So far, so good. What is lacking, however, is evidence. Not necessarily evidence in the rarefied Cochrane sense of idealized survival curves, nor even Level II evidence, but any evidence at all. Like whirling dervishes, patients and their physicians are drawn into a trancelike state, when terms like NextGen sequencing, SNP analysis and splice variants are bandied about.

Despite the enthusiastic reception by investors, I fear a lack of competent due diligence. To wit, a recent article in Biotechniques, “Will the Real Cancer Cell Please Stand Up,” comes to mind. It seems that cancer cells are not individual entities but networks. A harmonic oscillation develops between tumor, stroma, vasculature and cytokines. In this mix, the cancer cell is but one piece of the puzzle.

Indeed, according to recent work from Baylor, some of the tumor promotion signals in the form of small interfering RNAs, may arise not from the cancer cells, but instead from the surrounding stroma. How then, will even the most punctiliously perfect genomic analyses of a cancer cells play out in the real world of human tumor biology and clinical response prediction? Not very well I fear. But then again such a discussion would require data on the predictive validity of the method, something that appears to be sorely lacking.

Will today’s gene profile companies prove to be the biotech Facebook IPOs of tomorrow?