Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Our Verging Future

Sometimes you have to look a little deeper to see what's really happening. Focus too closely on what other people say is important and you miss the real news. That happened this past week when the usual political bickering and financial scandals dominated discussions while an incredible story about a man whose cancer got cured was lost in the shuffle.
The lucky cancer patient is Dr. Lukas Wartman and he was approaching death from Leukemia when his colleagues at Washington University, using the university's extensive research facilities, sequenced his cancer's DNA and RNA and discovered that one of the cancer's genes was behaving abnormally. They suspected this gene's behavior was fueling the cancer and, as luck would have it, there was an existing drug, Sutent, on the market that is designed to shut down that gene. When Wartman's insurance company refused to pay the $330 per day for the drug, he scraped together the money for two weeks worth of Sutent and began taking it. Soon his colleagues pitched in yet again to give him a month's supply. After several weeks of Sutent, all signs of his cancer were gone. Extensive testing by his doctor could find not even the slightest trace of it.

This, of course, is a significant development - far more significant than anything else that happened this past week. Having lost my father to lung cancer, I can imagine the impact that Wartman's remission is having on him and his loved ones. Cancer is a very daunting disease and the way most people's cancer is treated - pumping large quantities of toxic substances into the body in the hope of randomly killing cancer cells - is primitive and, in my father's case, ineffective. What's great about Wartman's treatment is how supremely targeted it was. Knowing precisely what gene is causing the cancer and having a manufactured chemical agent available to effectively stop it is something that, until  recently, would have happened only in science fiction. Yet here it is today. It's important to relish these strides forward and not become jaded.

Connecting the Dots

The fact that Dr. Wartman works at a university is significant in that his colleagues had access to the necessary resources to perform the genetic sequencing of his cancer. But what if he had not been part of the research community?  What if his co-workers and his place of employment hadn't just happened to have everything necessary to perform the very expensive and difficult job of genetic sequencing? Would Wartman still have such a happy outcome? Probably not. Genetic sequencing for clinical purposes is not generally available yet. And so this is a treatment approach that is not yet ready for the average person.

Yet this is where another news article from last week comes into play.
Appearing in Forbes just a few days later was a report about  Complete Genomics, a genetic sequencing company. Complete Genomics aims to be a "DNA factory" that can sequence the genomes of large numbers of people inexpensively. Due to an entrenched competitor, however, they are having trouble getting established in the genome research market. The Forbes article discusses how Complete Genomics is therefore turning to the fledgling market for clinical genomic tests. The clinical genomic market involves searching for genetic diseases and, coincidentally, sequencing cancers.

You can see the verging connection unfolding - a need for affordable cancer gene sequencing and a private sequencing company looking for clinical customers. Supply meets demand. Complete Genomics may or may not be the company that leads the way into a new approach to cancer treatment and the science may yet be a few years off, but the budding potential for a better future and a whole new industry is there to see. You just have to dig down a little deeper than the headlines.

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