Tumour screening could provide treatment targets
US research has for the first time demonstrated a practical method of screening tumours for genetic abnormalities that could be vulnerable to targeted drugs.
New gene variants linked to cancer are being discovered on an almost weekly basis, but a simple and affordable way to find which are at work in different patients has proved elusive.
"This study suggests that such a method is feasible on a large scale," said senior author Dr Levi Garraway of the Dana-Farber Institute.
The development of a simple test could allow doctors to 'personalise' therapies, tailoring treatments so that they target an individual's cancer.
The researchers took advantage of the fact that mutations in the genes linked to cancer tend to occur in specific regions of each gene.
This allowed them to analyse just this region, rather than looking for mutations along the gene's entire length, vastly speeding up the process.
Scanning 1,000 tumours for 238 known abnormalities revealed at least one mutation in 298 of the tumours - a level consistent with previous research.
"Mutations were identified in the percentages we expected," said Dr Garraway, "which indicates this technique is on-target for the mutations we were interested in.
"Overall, the technique worked very well: we were able to obtain mutation profiles that were accurate, sensitive, and cost-effective."
Senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK Henry Scowcroft warned that it would be some time before the method was available for doctors to use.
"Results like these show that we're making real progress towards being able to diagnose a person's tumour on a genetic level, and tailor their treatment accordingly.
"But we're not there yet. There's still an awfully long way to go in testing these techniques, so that they can be used to help cancer patients reliably, accurately and cost-effectively."
The study was conducted by the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and MIT in the US, and is published in Nature Genetics.