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Cancer centers facing new challenges, NM doctor says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Cancer medicine is entering a new era, using drugs that target specific mutations identified by gene sequencing of cancerous tumors.

WILLMAN: A different way of delivering medicine

WILLMAN: A different way of delivering medicine

The new techniques pose special challenges for cancer centers in small states like New Mexico, where patient numbers are small, said Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.

“The real challenge for our patients is, how do you get your hands on those drugs, because you are going to need a whole cabinet of targeted agents,” Willman said.

Part of the answer involves collaborating with other institutions to pool the genetic data from large numbers of patients, she said.

UNM Cancer Center announced recently that it has joined a research collaboration with five other U.S. cancer centers to pool genetic data of cancerous tumors and more quickly match patients to targeted treatments and drug trials.

For New Mexico, the collaboration is expected to help attract partnerships with drug companies that require large numbers of cancer patients to validate the results of drug trials, Willman said.

“Cancer medicine is going through a huge transformation, which is to do comprehensive sequencing of each patient’s tumor, identify the mutations that are present, then pick the drug that really is targeting those mutations,” she said.

UNM Cancer Center also plans this year to begin a nationwide study of leukemia patients. UNM will genetically sequence cancerous tumors for each of some 4,000 U.S. patients diagnosed with the blood cancer each year in search of mutations that can be targeted for drug therapies, Willman said.

The new studies are called “basket trials” because they enroll patients with different kinds of cancers, but who share specific genetic mutations.

The technique is the product of advancements in genetic science, which have brought the cost of a complete genetic sequencing test to under $3,000.

Within about two months, UNM Cancer Center and other ORIEN collaborators will allow any patient to enroll in a study called total cancer care, in which each patient’s cancer will be fully sequenced and stored in a database, Willman said.

The ORIEN network is anchored by the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., and the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus.

The network will allow the institutions to search for patients with similar mutations suitable for treatment with targeted drug therapies, she said.

“It is going to be a really different way of delivering cancer medicine than we ever did in the past,” Willman said of basket trials. “It’s causing a revolution in cancer medicine.”

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