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Mass General Starts Personalized Cancer Program

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center plans to begin using gene-based tests for nearly all of its cancer patients to help make treatment decisions as part of a personalized healthcare initiative, it said this week.

The hospital said it will use its newly opened translational research laboratory to support this program, which also is aimed at gathering research data from tumors that may contribute to more personalized treatments in the future.

"This new and improved classification of cancers that we are doing is intended to give our oncologists more information about an individual patient's cancer, so they can treat it in a very specific way, thereby significantly increasing the odds of successful treatment," said John Iafrate, co-director at the new cancer lab, in a statement.

The lab's new tumor genotyping initiative should help to develop new treatments, MGH said.

"If we are able to identify a mutation in, say, a case of lung cancer, and we know that a particular drug has been successful in treating colon cancer patients with the same mutation, then we have good reason to believe that drug will work turning off the cancer-causing mutation in the lung cancer patient as well," another lab co-director, Leif Ellisen, said in a statement.

MGHCC said it is using a multiplexed single-base extension method, which was developed to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms, to interrogate a number of somatic cancer gene mutations at once.

The hospital hopes to use cancer drugs that block mutations and pathways that cause tumor cells to proliferate in order to target gene mutations in individual cancer patients. Such a treatment program could help doctors and patients avoid using traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.

Currently, explained MGHCC researcher and lab co-director Darrell Borger in an email to GenomeWeb Daily News today, the hospital is "genetically fingerprinting tumors from lung cancer patients to help clinicians determine the best treatment decisions.

"Instead of being treated based on the location of a cancer, we can now more closely home in on the underlying mechanisms of the disease on a case-by-case basis. By choosing the 'right' drugs based on these underlying abnormalities, we hope to significantly improve treatment effects in our patients," Borger said.

The program also is providing analysis of tumors from different centers around the country that are conducting clinical trials, Borger explained.

"Many very promising clinical trials are now enrolling patients based on an underlying genetic fingerprint that is most likely to compliment the drug's actions," he noted.

While the initial focus is on lung cancer tumors, MGHCC plans to offer this program "as a standard testing option for all of our cancer patients, regardless of tumor location, within a year," said Borger.

The costs of the tumor screening "is still being determined and will meet guidelines required at the state level," Borger said, although he expects the cost to "be in line with other routine clinical tests."

It was not immediately clear if MGHCC expects the test to be covered by health insurance companies. However, Borger said, "The potential impact of tumor screening in revealing the most effect treatment strategies and avoiding costly drugs that likely will not work is expected to provide large cost benefits."

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