How Genetic Testing and Targeted Treatments Are Helping More Cancer Patients Survive
Late in 2018, Chris Reiner found himself “chasing a persistent cough” to figure out a cause. He talked to doctors; he endured various tests, including an X-ray. Initially, his physician suspected bronchitis. After several months, he still felt no improvement. In May 2019, his general practitioner recommended that Reiner, a business development specialist for a Seattle-based software company, schedule a CAT scan.
Reiner knew immediately that his doctor asking him to visit his office to discuss the results wasn’t a good sign. The longtime resident of Newburyport, MA, remembers dreading “that conversation that people who learn they have cancer have.”
“The doctor handed me something to look at, and the only thing I remember after that was everything went blank all around me,” Reiner, 50, reveals. “It was the magnitude of what he was telling me, that I had a malignant mass in my lung.”
Next, he recalls, he felt ushered into “the jaws of the medical system very quickly.” He spent a couple of days meeting with a team of doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in nearby Boston. One of them was from a medical field he hadn’t even known existed, a pulmonary interventionist, who would perform a biopsy on the mass in his lung.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders."
A week later he and his wife Allison returned to meet with the oncologist, radiologist, pulmonary interventionist – his medical team. They confirmed his initial diagnosis: Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer that had spread to several parts of his body. “We just sat there, stunned,” he says. “I felt like I was getting hit by a wrecking ball over and over.”
An onslaught of medical terminology about what they had identified flowed over the shocked couple, but then the medical team switched gears, he recalls. They offered hope. “They told me, ‘Hey, you’re not a smoker, so that’s good,’” Reiner says. “‘There’s a good chance that what’s driving this disease for you is actually a genetic mutation, and we have ways to understand more about what that could be through some simple testing.’”
They told him about Foundation Medicine, a company launched in neighboring Cambridge, MA, in 2009 that develops, manufactures, and sells genomic profiling assays. These are tests that, according to the company’s website, “can analyze a broad panel of genes to detect the four main classes of genomic alterations known to drive cancer growth.” With these insights, certain patients can be matched with therapies targeted specifically for the genetic driver(s) of their cancer. The company maintains one of the largest cancer genomic databases in the world, with more than 500,000 patient samples profiled, and they have more than 65 biopharma partners.
According to Foundation Medicine, they are the only company that has FDA-approved tests for both tissue- and blood-based comprehensive genomic profiling tests. One other company has an FDA-approved biopsy test, and several other companies offer tissue-based genomic profiling. Additionally, several major cancer centers like Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York and Anderson Cancer Center in Texas have their own such testing platforms.
Currently, genomic profiling is more accessible for patients with advanced cancer, due to broader insurance coverage in later stages of disease.
“Right now, the vast majority of patients either have cancers for which we don’t have treatments or they have genetic alterations that are not known,” says Jorge Garcia, MD, Division Chief, Solid Tumor Oncology, UH Cleveland Medical Center, which has its own CGP testing platform. “However, a significant proportion of patients with advanced cancer have alterations that we can tap for therapeutic purposes.”
Foundation Medicine estimates that in 2017, just over 5 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S. received CGP testing. In 2021, they estimate that number is between 25 to 30 percent of advanced solid cancer patients in the U.S., which doesn’t include patients who are tested with small (less than 50 genes) panels. Their panel tests for more than 300 cancer-related genes.
“The good news is the platforms we are developing are better and more comprehensive, and they’re going to continue to be larger data sets,” Dr. Garcia adds.
In Reiner’s case, his team ordered comprehensive genetic profiling on both his tissue and blood, from Foundation Medicine.
At this point, Reiner still wasn’t sure what genetic mutations were or how they factored into cancer or what comprehensive genomic profiling entailed. That day, though, his team ushered the Reiners into the world of precision oncology that placed him on much more sure footing to learn about and fight the specific lung cancer that had been troubling him for more than a year.
What genetic alterations were driving his cancer? Foundation Medicine’s tests were about to find out.
At the core of these tests is next generation sequencing, a DNA sequencing technology. Since 2009, this has revolutionized genomic research, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, because it allows an entire human genome to be sequenced within one day. Cancer genomics posits that cancer is caused by mutations and is a disease of the genome. Now, cancer genomes can be systemically studied in their entirety. For cancer patients such as Reiner, NGS can provide a more precise diagnosis and classification of the disease, more accurate prognosis, and potentially the identification of targeted drug treatments. Ultimately, the technology can provide the basis of personalized cancer management.
The detailed reports supply patients and their oncologists with extensive information about the patient’s genomic profile and potential treatment options that they can discuss together. Reiner trusted his doctors that this approach was worth the two- or three-week wait to receive the Foundation Medicine report and the specifically targeted treatment, rather than immediately jump into a round of chemotherapy. He is especially grateful now, he says, because the report delivered a great deal of relief from his previously exhausting and growing anxiety about having cancer.
Reiner and his team learned his lung cancer contained the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutation. That biomarker enabled his oncologist to prescribe Tagrisso (osimertinib), a medication developed to directly target that genetic mutation.
“Knowing there was a medicine for my particular type of cancer was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “It only took a week or two before my cough finally started subsiding. This pill goes right after the particular piece of genetic material in the tumor that’s causing its growth.”
Dr. Jerry Mitchell, director field medical oncology, Foundation Medicine, in Columbus, Ohio, explains that genomic profiling is generating substantial impacts today. “This is a technology that is the standard of care across many advanced malignancies that takes patients from chemotherapy-only options to very targeted options or immunotherapy options,” he says. “You can also look at complex biomarkers, and these are not specific genetic changes but different genes across the tumor to get a biomarker.”
According to Dr. Mitchell, Foundation Medicine’s technology can test more than 324 different cancer-related genes in a single test. Thus, a growing number of patients are benefitting from comprehensive genetic profiling, due to the rapidly growing number of targeted therapies. While not all of the cancers are treatable yet, the company uses that information to partner with researchers to find new potential therapies for patient groups that may have rare mutations.
Since his tumor’s diagnosis, Reiner has undergone chemotherapy and a couple surgeries to treat the metastatic cancer in other parts of his body, but the drug Tagrisso has significantly reduced his lung tumor. Now, having learned so much during the past couple of years, he is grateful for precision oncology. He still reflects on the probability that, had the Tagrisso pill not been available in May 2019, he might have only survived for another six months or a year.
“Comprehensive Genomic Profiling is not some future state, but in both the U.S. and Europe, it is a very standard, accepted, and recommended first step to knowing how to treat your cancer,” says Dr. Mitchell, adding that he feels fortunate to be an oncologist in this era. “However, we know there are still people not getting this recommended testing, so we still have opportunities to find many more patients and impact them by knowing the molecular profile of their cancer.”
This is part 2 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here.
After graduating from her studies as an engineer, Nora Stroetzel ticked off the top item on her bucket list and traveled the world for a year. She loved remote places like the Indonesian rain forest she reached only by hiking for several days on foot, mountain villages in the Himalayas, and diving at reefs that were only accessible by local fishing boats.
“But no matter how far from civilization I ventured, one thing was already there: plastic,” Stroetzel says. “Plastic that would stay there for centuries, on 12,000 foot peaks and on beaches several hundred miles from the nearest city.” She saw “wild orangutans that could be lured by rustling plastic and hermit crabs that used plastic lids as dwellings instead of shells.”
While traveling she started volunteering for beach cleanups and helped build a recycling station in Indonesia. But the pivotal moment for her came after she returned to her hometown Kiel in Germany. “At the dentist, they gave me a plastic cup to rinse my mouth. I used it for maybe ten seconds before it was tossed out,” Stroetzel says. “That made me really angry.”
She decided to research alternatives for plastic in the medical sector and learned that cups could be reused and easily disinfected. All dentists routinely disinfect their tools anyway and, Stroetzel reasoned, it wouldn’t be too hard to extend that practice to cups.
It's a good example for how often plastic is used unnecessarily in medical practice, she says. The health care sector is the fifth biggest source of pollution and trash in industrialized countries. In the U.S., hospitals generate an estimated 6,000 tons of waste per day, including an average of 400 grams of plastic per patient per day, and this sector produces 8.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
“Sustainable alternatives exist,” Stroetzel says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
When Stroetzel spoke with medical staff in Germany, she found they were often frustrated by all of this waste, especially as they took care to avoid single-use plastic at home. Doctors in other countries share this frustration. In a recent poll, nine out of ten doctors in Germany said they’re aware of the urgency to find sustainable solutions in the health industry but don’t know how to achieve this goal.
After a year of researching more sustainable alternatives, Stroetzel founded a social enterprise startup called POP, short for Practice Without Plastic, together with IT expert Nicolai Niethe, to offer well-researched solutions. “Sustainable alternatives exist,” she says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
In addition to reusable dentist cups, other good options for the heath care sector include washable N95 face masks and gloves made from nitrile, which waste less water and energy in their production. But Stroetzel admits that truly making a medical facility more sustainable is a complex task. “This includes negotiating with manufacturers who often package medical materials in double and triple layers of extra plastic.”
While initiatives such as Stroetzel’s provide much needed information, other experts reason that a wholesale rethinking of healthcare is needed. Voluntary action won’t be enough, and government should set the right example. Kari Nadeau, a Stanford physician who has spent 30 years researching the effects of environmental pollution on the immune system, and Kenneth Kizer, the former undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in JAMA last year that the medical industry and federal agencies that provide health care should be required to measure and make public their carbon footprints. “Government health systems do not disclose these data (and very rarely do private health care organizations), unlike more than 90% of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies and many nongovernment entities," they explained. "This could constitute a substantial step toward better equipping health professionals to confront climate change and other planetary health problems.”
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S.
Kizer and Nadeau look to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), which created a Sustainable Development Unit in 2008 and began that year to conduct assessments of the NHS’s carbon footprint. The NHS also identified its biggest culprits: Of the 2019 footprint, with emissions totaling 25 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 62 percent came from the supply chain, 24 percent from the direct delivery of care, 10 percent from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4 percent from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS. From 1990 to 2019, the NHS has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 26 percent, mostly due to the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. Meanwhile, the NHS has encouraged health clinics in the U.K. to install wind generators or photovoltaics that convert light to electricity -- relatively quick ways to decarbonize buildings in the health sector.
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S. “We are already seeing patients with symptoms from climate change, such as worsened respiratory symptoms from increased wildfires and poor air quality in California,” write Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and UCSF clinical research coordinator Daisy Valdivieso. “Because of the enormous health threat posed by climate change, health professionals should mobilize support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.” They believe “the most direct place to start is to approach the low-lying fruit: reducing healthcare waste and overuse.”
In addition to resulting in waste, the plastic in hospitals ultimately harms patients, who may be even more vulnerable to the effects due to their health conditions. Microplastics have been detected in most humans, and on average, a human ingests five grams of microplastic per week. Newman and Valdivieso refer to the American Board of Internal Medicine's Choosing Wisely program as one of many initiatives that identify and publicize options for “safely doing less” as a strategy to reduce unnecessary healthcare practices, and in turn, reduce cost, resource use, and ultimately reduce medical harm.
A few U.S. clinics are pioneers in transitioning to clean energy sources. In Wisconsin, the nonprofit Gundersen Health network became the first hospital to cut its reliance on petroleum by switching to locally produced green energy in 2015, and it saved $1.2 million per year in the process. Kaiser Permanente eliminated its 800,000 ton carbon footprint through energy efficiency and purchasing carbon offsets, reaching a balance between carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere in 2020, the first U.S. health system to do so.
Cleveland Clinic has pledged to join Kaiser in becoming carbon neutral by 2027. Realizing that 80 percent of its 2008 carbon emissions came from electricity consumption, the Clinic started switching to renewable energy and installing solar panels, and it has invested in researching recyclable products and packaging. The Clinic’s sustainability report outlines several strategies for producing less waste, such as reusing cases for sterilizing instruments, cutting back on materials that can’t be recycled, and putting pressure on vendors to reduce product packaging.
The Charité Berlin, Europe’s biggest university hospital, has also announced its goal to become carbon neutral. Its sustainability managers have begun to identify the biggest carbon culprits in its operations. “We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions by 21 percent since 2016,” says Simon Batt-Nauerz, the director of infrastructure and sustainability.
The hospital still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, as much as a city with 10,000 residents, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees, who can get their bikes repaired for free in one of the Charité-operated bike workshops. Another program targets doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs, which cause more than 200 tons of CO2 during manufacturing and cleaning. The staff is currently testing lighter, more sustainable scrubs made from recycled cellulose that is grown regionally and requires 80 percent less land use and 30 percent less water.
The Charité hospital in Berlin still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees.
Anesthesiologist Susanne Koch spearheads sustainability efforts in anesthesiology at the Charité. She says that up to a third of hospital waste comes from surgery rooms. To reduce medical waste, she recommends what she calls the 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Research. “In medicine, people don’t question the use of plastic because of safety concerns,” she says. “Nobody wants to be sued because something is reused. However, it is possible to reduce plastic and other materials safely.”
For instance, she says, typical surgery kits are single-use and contain more supplies than are actually needed, and the entire kit is routinely thrown out after the surgery. “Up to 20 percent of materials in a surgery room aren’t used but will be discarded,” Koch says. One solution could be smaller kits, she explains, and another would be to recycle the plastic. Another example is breathing tubes. “When they became scarce during the pandemic, studies showed that they can be used seven days instead of 24 hours without increased bacteria load when we change the filters regularly,” Koch says, and wonders, “What else can we reuse?”
In the Netherlands, TU Delft researchers Tim Horeman and Bart van Straten designed a method to melt down the blue polypropylene wrapping paper that keeps medical instruments sterile, so that the material can be turned it into new medical devices. Currently, more than a million kilos of the blue paper are used in Dutch hospitals every year. A growing number of Dutch hospitals are adopting this approach.
Another common practice that’s ripe for improvement is the use of a certain plastic, called PVC, in hospital equipment such as blood bags, tubes and masks. Because of its toxic components, PVC is almost never recycled in the U.S., but University of Michigan researchers Danielle Fagnani and Anne McNeil have discovered a chemical process that can break it down into material that could be incorporated back into production. This could be a step toward a circular economy “that accounts for resource inputs and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, and disposal,” as medical experts have proposed. “It’s a failure of humanity to have created these amazing materials which have improved our lives in many ways, but at the same time to be so shortsighted that we didn’t think about what to do with the waste,” McNeil said in a press release.
Susanne Koch puts it more succinctly: “What’s the point if we save patients while killing the planet?”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI