What Is Personalized Cancer Medicine?

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2017

Personalized medicine helps doctors learn about a person’s genetic makeup and how their tumor grows. With this information, doctors hope to find prevention, screening, and treatment strategies that may be more effective. They also want to find treatments that cause fewer side effects than the standard options. By performing genetic tests on the cancer cells and on normal cells, doctors may be able to customize treatment to each patient’s needs.

Creating a personalized cancer screening and treatment plan involves:

  • Finding out the chances of a person developing cancer and selecting screening strategies to lower the risk

  • Matching patients with treatments that are likely to be more effective and cause fewer side effects

  • Predicting the risk of recurrence, which is the return of cancer

How personalized medicine is different

Before personalized medicine, most patients with a specific type and stage of cancer received the same treatment. However, it became clear that certain treatments worked better for some patients than for others. The growth in the field of genetics has led researchers to find genetic differences in people and their tumors. This explained many of the different responses to treatment.

A person with cancer may now still receive a standard treatment plan, such as surgery to remove a tumor. However, the doctor may also be able to recommend some type of personalized cancer treatment. Personalized cancer treatment is an active part of the treatment plan or a part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research study involving people.

Examples of personalized medicine

Examples of personalized medicine strategies for cancer include:

  • Targeted treatments. A targeted treatment targets a cancer’s specific genes and proteins that allow the cancer cells to grow and survive. Researchers are finding new targets each year. They create and test new drugs for these targets. A few, but not all, of the cancers where targeted treatments are used include:

    • Breast cancer

    • Colorectal cancer

    • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor

    • Kidney cancer

    • Lung cancer

    • Melanoma

    • Multiple myeloma

    • Some types of leukemia and lymphoma

    • Some types of childhood cancers

    Of course, treatment with a targeted therapy depends on finding out whether the tumor has the specific target. This is found by testing a sample of the tumor.

  • Pharmacogenomics. Pharmacogenomics looks at how a person’s genes affect the way the body processes and responds to drugs. These changes influence how effective and safe a drug is for a person. For example, some people’s bodies may process a medicine more quickly than others. This means that the person would require a higher dose of that drug for it to be effective. However, someone else’s body may not process a drug as quickly. The drug would then stay in the bloodstream for a longer time and may cause more severe side effects.

How can pharmacogenomics be used for cancer treatments? Here is an example: People with colorectal cancer sometimes have a specific altered gene. These patients may have serious side effects when treated with the drug irinotecan (Camptosar). This gene makes it harder for the body to break down the drug. In these patients, doctors prescribe lower amounts of the medicine so patients will have fewer side effects.

The future of personalized medicine

Despite the promises of personalized cancer treatments, not all types of cancer have personalized treatment options. Some personalized treatments are only offered through a clinical trial and are not yet standard treatment options. Genetic testing for patients and tumor samples may be costly and time-consuming. Many insurance plans may not cover the costs of these tests. Also, some personalized treatments, such as targeted treatments, can be expensive.

Personalized medicine is an evolving approach to cancer treatment. Doctors still don’t know all about the genetic changes that occur in a cancer cell. They also don’t know how some of these new cancer treatments work. A targeted therapy may stop working, making a promising treatment no longer effective. Talk with your health care team to learn if personalized cancer treatments may be a part of your treatment plan.

Questions to ask the health care team

To learn more about personalized cancer care, consider asking your health care team these questions:

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What clinical trials are open to me?

  • Are there tests available that can help guide treatment choices?

  • Is this treatment considered personalized medicine? If so, how?

  • What are the benefits of this treatment?

  • What are the potential side effects of this treatment?

  • What is my chance of recovery?

Related Resources

Financial Considerations

Introduction to Cancer Research