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Accelerating moves towards individualised cancer treatment

Amanda Swain appearing on Panorama_Image credit: BBC, 2015

Dr Amanda Swain leads the ICR’s Tumour Profiling Unit – a state-of-the-art research centre at our laboratories in Chelsea. The centre has been designed to accelerate moves towards precision cancer medicine, and is currently the focus of a major £3.2million appeal

Because tumours are constantly changing, a patient’s cancer after treatment may become very different from when they were first diagnosed. Within the Tumour Profiling Unit, our researchers are building up a detailed understanding of the molecular alterations that take place in different patients’ tumours over the course of their treatment.

The focus for Dr Swain and her team is to understand which genetic alterations are important in driving cancer over time – identifying where treatment with targeted drugs could help extend the lives of otherwise untreatable patients.

This research could also identify mutations which seem to play a role in driving cancer but are not routinely targeted by current drugs. Last year the team analysed nearly 1,500 samples from different cancers such as breast, ovarian, prostate, gastric, bowel, renal, lung, salivary gland, glioblastoma and leukaemia.

Samples are typically from patients who have either responded very well to treatment, or who have become resistant to certain drugs. Using this sequence data, we are working to understand why the patients’ tumours are responding to the drugs in the way they have.

Can You Cure My Cancer? features Dr Swain discussing the work of her unit, as well as an interview with Professor Kevin Harrington about a project to generate and sequence ‘avatar’ mice with tumours of the same genetic type as individual patients being treated at The Royal Marsden.

Dr Swain also talks about an important strategy of the Tumour Profiling Unit – its development of techniques to track the genetics of a patient’s cancer by testing for cancer cells circulating in the blood stream. This work could allow researchers to test an individual patient’s cancer at many times during the course of their treatment – and for doctors to adjust the drugs they are taking accordingly.