Cancer is one of those words that have the power to evoke fear, insecurity and dread in an instant. With more than 45,000 cases being diagnosed each year and breast cancer the leading cause of death for women ages 34-54. Many of us will have been affected by the disease at some point in our lives either personally or through mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts or friends currently undergoing the trials and tribulations of treatment. And many of us would do anything to prevent it.
Cancer is costing the British economy more than £18 billion a year and this figure could rise to a staggering £25 billion over the next ten years according to a report by one think tank. It is with these facts in mind that I welcome the gene test unveiled yesterday by scientists from an international cancer based project (including researchers from Cancer Research UK). This innovative genetic technology aims to evaluate the effectiveness of the Paclitaxel drug in breast cancer patients and reveal which women are likely to respond best to the drug. Six genes were whittled down from the 829 found in breast cancer cells, and were found to prevent Paclitaxel from killing cancer cells efficiently if missing, not fully functioning or switched on.
Currently an approximate of 15% of women with breast cancer receive Paclitaxel as treatment, and researchers have estimated that these cases could be cut down to half if the drug were given to those patients in which it would actually be effective. With a disease where costs are spiraling out of control and uncertainty in treatment stands in the way of efficiency, targeting drugs to those who will benefit them the most is certainly a step in the right direction. We couldavoid giving treatment where it is less likely to be effective and ill serving those patients with drug resistant cancers.
Such a test could help eliminate waste in the NHS and give treatments currently considered too expensive to fund on the NHS more leverage. Further studies are now being carried out to see if the techniques can be transferred into a simple diagnostic test; informing professionals on whether to prescribe Paclitaxel to certain women or not. Customisation is the key to better care, and this test has the potential to bring about important changes in creating personalized care that is tailored to the patient’s needs. Using genes to eliminate inefficient drugs in the treatment plan, and predicting those which will benefit patients the most, gives people a brighter survival outlook and improved outcomes in life.
With an extensive list of cancer drugs on the menu, the question now is whether this technique can be applied to other cancer drug treatments. But before we get ahead ourselves there are important considerations and questions to be asked on how the testing can be best implemented. What would the policy be on such genetic testing? And on the down side, let’s not forget the bigger issue of availability; a setback that crops up every time we become excited over new innovative advancements in science. We already know patients at risk of inherited cancer face an unjust lottery when seeking access to genetic testing on the NHS – a system which has been depriving people of the treatment they need and putting thousands of lives at risk every year. It’s about time we consider practicalities before raising hopes for thousands of sufferers. There is after all no point in having such wonderful technologies in medicine if we can’t use them to improve cancer care! It seems to be a typical case of you can look, but you can’t touch….
Pawan K Kahlon