New Tools Continue the Fight against Genetic Cancers
Techniques for treating cancer have developed substantially in recent years, but just as important, if not of greater importance, are advances in the early and accurate detection of the disease. Increased knowledge of human genetics has revealed the critical role one’s genes often play in acquiring many cancers. Consequently, the ability to predict, diagnose, and treat cancer based on a person’s genetic makeup has offered powerful new tools for doctors and new hope for patients and their families.
Cells in the human body are created using information gathered from DNA. DNA is made up of genes ordered and combined in a specific pattern to define physical composition. The chemical database of information created by the genetic pattern in DNA determines the number and type of cells an individual requires. If any genes have been damaged or altered, the database is flawed, and problems such as cancer can occur. These damaged or altered genes can be inherited. Until recently, their mutated nature often remained undetected until they fully manifested in the form of disease, and even then the underlying genetic root of the condition was unknown. Now, genetic testing via blood sample allows doctors to identify mutated genes associated with a variety of diseases, including cancer, and to implement preventative strategies and aggressive treatments at much earlier stages than previously possible.
Microarray technology is one of the newest technologies available to genetic cancer research. Using a small microchip and predefined gene fragments, the genetic profiles of tumor cells are compared to the predefined fragments, allowing the differences to be identified, analyzed, and cataloged. This “gene expression profiling” aids doctors in the early detection, classification, and treatment of many types of cancer.
Dr. Matthew Ellis, professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, has used microarray technology to discover genetic abnormalities which are specific to breast cancer. Dr. Ellis believes understanding these abnormalities is “one of the most important challenges facing breast cancer researchers today.” Microarray technology provides researchers and care providers with an atlas of biomarkers which they can then use to better diagnose and treat the cancer. Dr. Ellis’s primary goal is to improve diagnostic methods; he and others like him hope to “deliver new clinical grade diagnostic tests based on our genomic discoveries.”
As understanding of the genetic links to cancer and the technology to study those links has improved, cancer diagnoses have become possible at earlier stages of the disease. In addition to improved medical testing and research techniques, new outlets for individual knowledge and support help patients fully participate in their quest against cancer. Organizations such as FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered), “the only national nonprofit organization devoted to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer,” provide education and support to individuals who have a family history of cancer or have a hereditary cancer themselves.
The role of organizations such as FORCE in genetic cancer diagnosis and treatment cannot be overstated. Support offered to cancer patients includes the Patient Experience Contact Tool. Visitors to FORCE can “search by surgeon, city, state, or type of surgery and contact patients who have used that surgeon or had that procedure.” Women who have metastatic hereditary breast cancer can complete a survey designed to help researchers better determine the underlying factors which contribute to the disease. With an estimate of more than one million people in the United States who carry a hereditary factor such as a gene mutation which puts them at a higher risk for cancer, FORCE has a hereditary cancer research fund where supporters can make a financial contribution and fill out a survey to help direct future cancer research. FORCE’s contribution to genetic cancer research and support of patients suffering from hereditary breast or ovarian cancer provide additional examples of new developments in genetic cancer diagnostics and treatment which can be extended to other types of genetic cancer.
In summary, human genetics have been found to play a critical role in whether people acquire many types of cancer. Increased knowledge regarding the part one’s genes play in the acquisition of cancer has helped doctors, researchers, and patients discover these cancers earlier, when the best options are available for treatment and prevention. Specifically, the scientific innovation of microarray analysis, enabling doctors and researchers to discover and catalog specific gene mutations, and organizations such as FORCE, which educates and supports patients with genetic cancers as well as raises funding for further cancer research, represent the latest efforts and accomplishments in a determined fight against a beatable disease.