Marked by the continued presence of COVID-19, 2021 was a momentous year for healthcare. Along with medical innovation to tackle the pandemic, we have also seen huge investments in genetic research in oncology and increased attention to clinical trials for rare cancers. However, of all the trends we’re seeing in cancer treatment, I’m especially optimistic about the promise of precision medicine across all types of disease to significantly improve patient outcomes.
We know that cancer can behave very differently from one patient to another; precision medicine allows oncologists to determine the best treatment for individual patients, based on their genetic information. This approach opens up a wide range of opportunities to improve care for patients, especially those who do not respond to traditional treatment approaches such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Furthermore, this increased understanding of the disease may help us prevent certain types of cancer and even develop better and more targeted treatments.
Although researchers have made progress in several areas in 2021 to advance precision medicine in oncology, there are two milestones that I find very exciting:
Molecular profiles open the way to new treatments for gastrointestinal cancer
Approximately 35% of all cancer-related deaths in the world are related to gastrointestinal or GI diseases. Traditional treatment (surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy) is often unsuccessful with this type of cancer, leaving an unmet need for improved care. However, the recent ability of gastrointestinal oncologists to molecularly profile these tumors has opened avenues for new, more focused and effective treatments. These treatments have such great potential to improve patient outcomes that the American Society of Clinical Oncology selected molecular profiling in GI cancers as the 2021 Breakthrough of the Year. Additionally, we saw breakthroughs for colorectal cancer patients with the approval of a therapy that targets specific DNA mutations in the metastatic state of the disease.
mRNA-based therapeutic vaccines have their moment to shine
Although not an entirely new concept, mRNA vaccines remain the stars of precision medicine. mRNA vaccines provide our bodies with the instruction manual for fighting a specific disease, and we have seen their potential most recently with COVID-19 vaccines. Just as this vaccine tells a person’s immune system what the spike protein looks like from COVID-19 so that it is prepared to respond if it appears, mRNA-based therapeutic vaccines may be able to warn of a cancer present so that the immune system can destroy tumor cells. However, knowing what to score depends on the unique genetic mutation of each patient’s cancer: there is no universal goal. However, some preliminary results from clinical trials have shown them to be highly effective.
At this time, there are several mRNA vaccines registered for clinical trials. It will take years of clinical trials to fully understand the value of this therapeutic approach, but COVID-19 gave mRNA-based vaccine treatments the attention they needed to move forward. With increased funding and enrollment in clinical trials of these mRNA-based therapies, we have seen tremendous progress in the last year, and I am sure the cancer community is looking forward to the possibilities that are opening up for patients. .
I have seen the continued progress of precision medicine and its potential to revolutionize the way patients battling cancer are cared for. That is why I am very proud of our team of clinical geneticists and genetics experts. The work we do is paving the way for predictive diagnosis and personalized treatments, and equipping our cancer experts and our patients with valuable information to reduce and manage cancer risks. We hope that the insights we gain from genetic testing and research in this field will one day produce life-saving diagnostic tools and treatments for all types of cancer.
As always, we look to the future and there are many bright spots on the horizon for 2022. An especially promising trend for the future of precision oncology is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. AI offers unique opportunities to complement precision medicine, from how we detect and classify cancer to how we develop new treatments and predict their outcomes.
Of course, there are challenges in bringing AI into healthcare, such as data biases, data sharing frameworks that support AI, code sharing for AI models, and a general lack of trust in AI among health care staff and even patients. However, I am excited to see how AI applications advance in this next year and how it develops in the long term in the context of precision medicine.
This has been a tough year for healthcare staff, including my team at Miami Cancer Institute, but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. If we can learn from the challenges we face, surely we will be stronger for it, as an institution and as health care professionals.
I hope we can all be empowered by the strides we’ve made in the face of adversity this year, and use this strength to further advance our research and our daily practices to support patients. I encourage you to stay informed about the latest developments and to think about how you can be the ones to shape change for patients in need.