Shortly before he was due to graduate from Washington University's medical school, Dr. Lukas Wartman received news that he had become inflicted with the very cancer he had spent years studying – leukemia.
At age 25, Wartman underwent nine months of chemotherapy and 15 months of follow-up care. Five years later, the cancer returned, forcing Wartman to receive an additional chemotherapy regimen and a bone-marrow transplant. This is one of the most common treatments for leukemia, which causes the body to produce abnormal and ineffective white blood cells.
Although he remained healthy for several more years, the cancer returned, which led his fellow researchers at the university to adopt a new approach related to personalized medicine. After sequencing and comparing a set of Wartman's healthy cells with the leukemia cells, researchers were able to find the culprit gene. Fortunately, they were familiar with a new drug that has been shown to target the gene in question.
Dr. Timothy Lee, who led Wartman's treatment and is the associate director of the university's cancer institute, said that genetics has allowed researchers to construct a map of the patient's cancer, whereas in the past, conditions were treated in a scattershot way, perhaps causing side effects that were unexpected and perhaps not even truly effective.
"What is important, medical researchers say, is the genes that drive a cancer, not the tissue or organ – liver or brain, bone marrow, blood or colon – where the cancer originates," according to a New York Times profile of Wartman. "One woman's breast cancer might have different genetic drivers from another woman's and, in fact, might have more in common with prostate cancer in a man or another patient's lung cancer."
The possibility that researchers could use drugs to attack the origin of leukemia is more appealing to patients than the radiation and chemotherapy treatments that are often suggested, but first, diagnostic laboratories need to be able to provide the necessary support services.
This article is brought to you by Slone Partners, a leading laboratory recruitment firm in the emerging sciences of molecular, clinical, and in-vitro diagnostics, anatomic pathology and personalized medicine.
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