DNA sequencing matches cancer patients to clinical trials

In collaboration with the Press Association

High-tech DNA scanning machines could help identify cancer patients' individual genetic make-up to match them to appropriate clinical trials, according to scientists in the US.

Experts at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Centre and Michigan Centre for Translational Pathology (MCTP) ran a small trial exploring how to quickly and systematically sequence genetic material from patients with advanced or treatment-resistant cancer.

By sequencing DNA to spot which genes are faulty in a patient's tumour, scientists can identify current clinical trials that include treatments targeted to these particular genes, the study in the Science Translational Medicine journal said.

The study began by testing the researchers's sequencing strategy on prostate tumours in mice. Later, two patients were enrolled in a clinical pilot: one with bowel cancer and one with melanoma skin cancer. Potential clinical trials were identified for both patients.

Co-lead investigator Dr Dan Robinson said: "We're talking about more than just examining a few genes where mutations are known to occur, or even about a hundred genes. We're talking about the ability to sequence more than 20,000 genes and look not just for individual genetic mutations, but at combinations of mutations."

The researchers cautioned that speed was crucial for the tests to be useful. They said it was vital that results be identified within four weeks because this is the period of time it normally takes for drugs used in unsuccessful treatments to work their way out of a patient's body so that they can start a new course of treatment.

Dr Sameek Roychowdhury, who also lead the study, said that the study opens the door for personalised oncology, "but it also presents a number of logistical challenges, chief among them making the results available cost-effectively and in a clinically relevant time-frame."

Kate Law, director of clinical research at Cancer Research UK, said: "The more we learn about cancer, the more apparent it is that each person's disease is unique. That's why work like this is crucial, as we need more intelligent ways to match patients to clinical trials that are likely to be suitable for their particular cancer.

"There are still some unanswered questions, like how the routine use of such DNA sequencing technology can be applied on a large scale. So this work is a long way from influencing how we run trials at the moment, but it shows we're moving towards a more personalised approach to matching patients."

Copyright Press Association 2011