Marked by the continued presence of COVID-19, 2021 was a momentous year for healthcare. Along with medical innovation to deal with the pandemic, we have also seen large investments in genetic research in oncology and increased attention to clinical trials for rare cancers. However, of all the trends we are seeing in cancer treatment, I am especially optimistic about the promise of precision medicine in all disease types to significantly improve patient outcomes.
We know that cancer can behave very differently from one patient to another; precision medicine enables 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 patient care, especially those who do not respond to traditional treatment approaches such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. In addition, this increased awareness of the disease can help us prevent certain types of cancer and even develop better and more targeted treatments.
Although researchers have moved forward in various areas in 2021 to advance precision medicine in oncology, there are two milestones that I find very exciting:
Molecular profiles pave the way for 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 unsatisfactory with this type of cancer, leaving an unmet need for improved care. However, the recent ability of gastrointestinal oncologists to develop molecular profiles of these tumors has opened avenues for new, more focused and effective treatments. These treatments have such great potential to improve patient outcomes that the ASCO selected molecular profiling in GI cancers as the Preview of the Year 2021. Additionally, we saw advancements for colorectal cancer patients with the approval of a therapy that targets specific DNA mutations in the metastatic state of the disease.
Therapeutic mRNA-based vaccines have their time to shine
Although not a totally 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’ve seen its potential more recently with COVID-19 vaccines. Just as this vaccine tells a person’s immune system what the COVID-19 spike protein looks like so that it is ready to respond if it does appear, 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 flag depends on the unique genetic mutation of each cancer patient – there is no universal goal. However, some preliminary results from clinical trials have shown that they are 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 keep moving forward. With increased funding and enrollment in clinical trials for these mRNA-based therapies, we’ve seen great progress in the last year, and I’m sure the cancer community is looking forward to the possibilities that open up for patients. .
I have seen the continued progress of precision medicine and its potential to revolutionize the way we care for patients fighting cancer. That is why I am very proud of our team of clinical geneticists and genetic experts. The work we do is paving the way to predictive diagnosis and personalized treatments, equipping our cancer experts and 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 are looking 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 the general lack of trust in AI among healthcare personnel and even patients. However, I am excited to see how AI applications advance in this coming year and how it develops in the long term in the context of precision medicine.
This has been a difficult year for healthcare personnel, including my team at Miami Cancer Institute, but I am proud of what we have accomplished. If we can learn from the challenges we face, we will surely be stronger for it, as an institution and as health care professionals.
I hope that we can all be empowered by the advances we have made in the face of adversity this year, and that we will use this strength to further advance our research and our daily practices to support patients. I encourage you to stay informed on the latest developments and to think about how you can be the ones to make change for patients in need.