Cancer treatments

Expert Voices

How precision medicine can help cancer patients

Scott Greaney receives an injection of chemotherapy during a treatment visit to the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta on Oct. 29, 2014.
A man receives a chemotherapy injection at the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta, Maine. Photo: Michael G. Seamans/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Last year, the FDA issued a landmark approval for the immune therapy drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) for the treatment of adult and pediatric metastatic tumors whose cells have defects in their DNA repair machinery. This was the first-ever approval of a site-agnostic drug, which targets a tumor based on its genetic profile instead of its anatomic location.

The big picture: The carpet-bombing approach of chemotherapy is slowly giving way to targeted therapies, which use drugs to attack specific abnormal molecules in cancer cells. Because these rogue molecules result from genetic mutations, sequencing the genes of a patient's tumor can determine which targeted therapy to pursue — an example of the personalized approach to treatment known as precision medicine.

Immunotherapy could be the "fourth pillar" of cancer treatments

Photo of Jim Allison, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize, in his lab coat.
Jim Allison. Photo courtesy of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

Jim Allison, today's winner of the first Nobel prize for cancer therapy along with Kyoto University's Tasuku Honjo, says he expects immunotherapy to be the "fourth pillar" in cancer treatments, along with radiation, chemotherapy and other gene-targeting treatments.

Why it matters: Immunotherapy treatments for cancer had a slow start, but persistent research has led to breakthroughs in the technology. Allison is responsible for developing the checkpoint blockade approach, which locates and blocks a key protein (CTLA-4) so that the immune system can attack cancer cells.