Personalized Cancer Treatment, A Promising Future

Until now, cancer treatment has been largely a one-size-fits-all affair, although we now know every cancer patient's disease is different. As scientists learn more about cancer, they're working towards personalizing treatment for each patient.

How cancer grows and spreads depends on many factors. However, the basic process is the same: cancer cells either lay dormant or grow. Growing tumors are fed by a network of blood vessels, which expand as the tumor grows. Tumors may metastasize (spread) through blood vessels and the lymphatic system.

Predictive Models

Given this basic process, scientists then use various models to predict what a cancer might do or how a tumor might respond to a specific treatment. A new model matches up the relationships between the underlying blood vessels that supply nutrients to tumors and how the cancer grows. It also helps identify key blood vessels oncologists could target to help control tumor growth. This model offers another bit of information that scientists will use one day.  


At the same time, researchers are also indentifying biomarkers in cancers that may predict whether a cancer will spread, or how effective a certain treatment might be. A biomarker is a substance that scientists can measure that displays a biological state-healthy or diseased.

For example, there are biomarkers that may help determine whether ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS (an early, non-invasive form of breast cancer), will spread. Currently, oncologists have no way of knowing which cases of DCIS may develop into advanced cancer, so all women diagnosed with DCIS are treated. If oncologists could use these biomarkers to predict cancer activity, it could help many women avoid unnecessary treatment and physicians to better define future risk for cancer.

Identifying predictive models or biomarkers in laboratory studies does not necessarily mean they will lead to real-life personalized cancer treatment. In fact, many initially promising findings have not lead to clinical use. While all progress towards personalized treatment is promising, we should not read too much into the results of any one study.

Oncologist Cary Presant, MD, recommends that cancer patients ask their physician about practices related to personalizing their treatment, such as:

  1. Are there any tests needed to personalize my therapy? 
  2. Have you checked me completely for recurrences and medication side effects?
  3. Have you checked my vitamin levels to be certain they are optimal? 
  4. Have you discussed prevention and screening so I know how frequently I must visit to get results?  

Choe, Sehyo C., Zhao, Guannan, Zhao, Zhenyuan, Rosenblatt, Joseph D., Cho, Hyun-Mi, Shin, Seung-Uon, and Johnson, Neil F. "Model for in vivo progression of tumors based on co-evolving cell population and vasculature." Scientific Reports  Volume: 1 Article number: 31. Web. 06 July 2011.

Parker-Pope, Tara. "A Study Offers Clues on Therapy for Cancer." New York Times. Web. 28 April 2010.

ScienceDaily. "New Biomarker Predicts Breast Cancer Relapse." Web. 3 July 2011.

ScienceDaily. "The Cancer Biomarker Conundrum: Too Many False Discoveries." Web. 12 August 2010.

Presant, Cary, MD. "Personalized Oncology Care: A New Paradigm For The Oncologist And Patient." Blog. Medscape Medical News. Web. 4 September 2009.!comment=1