Since I was just banging on the table (or the lab bench) the other day about how many diseases aren’t single-factor, and about how many diseases (like cancer) aren’t even single diseases, I thought this would be a good time to haul out some evidence for that. The data are here thanks to some recent papers by groups who are sequencing various tumor lines, looking for common mutations as new drug targets. (The Cancer Genome Atlas, an NIH project, is behind a lot of work in this area).
But what’s become clear, if it wasn’t already, is that various cancer lines have a startlingly wide array of mutations. Recent work from Bert Vogelstein’s group at Johns Hopkins (with a host of collaborators) and from the CGA itself now show that there are an average of 63 mutations in pancreatic cancer cells, and 47 in glioblastomas, two of the nastiest tumors around. The first impulse might be to think “Great! Plenty of drug targets to go around!”
But hold on. For one thing, even though these mutations are surely not all equal, the fact that there are so many makes you wonder about whether attacking any one of them alone can make much of a difference. And different patients can have varying suites of those mutations, so it’s difficult to imagine that going after just one or two of those targets will be enough to treat a majority of cases. This work follows up on earlier studies in other tumor lines, all of which seem to point in the same direction: patients who are currently classed as having the same type of cancer really don’t.
This won’t come as a surprise to most oncologists, who have seen for themselves the widely varying responses to current therapies. The challenge is to figure out what these various changes mean, and how to classify patients to give them the best therapy. It’s not going to be easy. Just doing the math on the possible interactions of several dozen mutations with a list of possible treatment regimes is enough to make you pause. The hope is that most patients will fall into broad categories, which will line up, more or less, with broad categories of treatment. But it’s not going to be a good fit, most likely, and even getting those approximations to work is taking a lot of time and effort. (Just think back about how long you’ve been hearing about the wonderful new age of personalized medicine. . .)
We're not going to be able to do this, either, without a second (and much harder) stage of research: figuring out why these various mutations are important. Some of them seem to make reasonable sense, but it's not at all clear what a lot of them are doing, especially in concert with each other. There's an awful lot of ditch-digging work out there waiting to be done. For now, the quotes from Vogelstein in a Nature News summary can’t be improved on, though. This is the current state of the art, and it’s up to us to improve on it:
"It is apparent from studies like ours that it is going to be even more difficult than expected to derive real cures. . . It is extremely unlikely that drugs that target a single gene, such as Gleevec, will be active against a major fraction of solid tumours”