Cancers are typically classified based on their tissue of origin, and that determines treatment plans. Although that practice is unlikely to end anytime soon, tumor classifications based on genetics are gaining traction and could lead to more effective, personalized treatments for patients.
“In recent years, we have recognized that even within one organ type of cancer, there are many different diseases that are pretty unique, and one way you can see these features is by looking at the genetics of the tumor,” says Mark Burkard, a medical oncologist and researcher at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. “We are hoping to ultimately use that information to customize people’s treatment, and that concept is called precision medicine.”
“In recent years, we have recognized that even within one organ type of cancer, there are many different diseases that are pretty unique, and one way you can see these features is by looking at the genetics of the tumor.”
In September 2015, the Carbone Cancer Center — in partnership with regional medical centers including Gundersen Lutheran, Green Bay Oncology, and Aurora Health Care — formed the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board (PMMTB).
“The PMMTB is a group of physicians and scientists who can take the information about how each cancer is unique, make recommendations, and try to figure out what that information means and how we can use it,” says Burkard, a PMMTB codirector.
In order to be considered by the PMMTB, a patient’s tumor must first be sequenced to identify its DNA mutations, and then the patient’s oncologists submit the case. “If there is a drug that has been shown to target the same mutation in another cancer type, but it is not currently approved for [his or her] type of cancer, then we can make an ‘off-label’ recommendation because we think the patient may benefit from the drug,” says Jill Kolesar ’90, MS’16, a former professor of pharmacy at the UW and a former codirector of the PMMTB.
By then collecting information about how well the recommended treatment is working, physicians can adjust their recommendations going forward to benefit patients.