A bold new way to test cancer drugs started Monday in hundreds of hospitals around the U.S. In a medical version of speed dating, doctors will sort through multiple experimental drugs and match patients to the one most likely to succeed based on each person's unique tumor gene profile.
It's an experiment that brings together drug companies, the government, private foundations and advocacy groups. The idea came from the Food and Drug Administration, which has agreed to consider approving new medicines based on the study.
Its goal is to speed new treatments to market and give seriously ill patients more chances to find something that will help. Instead of being tested for individual genes and trying to qualify for separate clinical trials testing single drugs, patients can enroll in this umbrella study, get full gene testing and have access to many options at once.
The study, called Lung-MAP, is for advanced cases of a common, hard-to-treat form of lung cancer — squamous cell. Plans for similar studies for breast and colon cancer are in the works.
"For patients, it gives them their best chance for treatment of a deadly disease," because everyone gets some type of therapy, said Ellen Sigal, chairwoman and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, a research and advocacy group that helped plan the study. "There's something for everyone, and we'll get answers faster" on whether experimental drugs work, she said.
Cancer medicines increasingly target specific gene mutations that are carried by smaller groups of patients. But researchers sometimes have to screen hundreds of patients to find a few with the right mutation, slowing down drug development.
One of the leaders of the Lung-MAP study — Dr. Roy Herbst, chief of medical oncology at the Yale Cancer Center — said he once screened 100 patients to find five that might be eligible for a study, and ultimately was able to enroll two. Up to 1,000 patients a year can be enrolled in the new study.
"Nothing like this has ever been done before," where such comprehensive testing will be done to match patients to experimental drugs, Herbst said.
Breyan Harris, a 33-year-old nurse from Sacramento, hopes to enroll. She's a lifelong non-smoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer on June 3.
"Since then I've pretty much been on the phone, seeing doctors, trying to figure out how do I get rid of this," she said. Harris expects to have one lung removed, "but if it comes back in my other lung I'm in real trouble," so finding a drug to attack any remaining, hidden cancer is crucial, she said.