A Comprehensive Cancer Center Designated by the National Cancer Institute

Pathways to Discovery: Winter 2011

New Center Aims to Provide Personalized Therapeutics for UChicago Patients

We believe … our pilot system will engender the development of a new medical system model for personalized medical care.
—Mark Ratain, MD

Personalized medicine is a primary focus of The University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC). One day, physicians will be able to use a series of markers unique to each person to tailor individualized prevention and treatment strategies. Those markers could include genetic, social, environmental, and behavioral factors.

Some personalized treatments already exist in oncology. They include genetic tests and measuring certain proteins in breast, lung, and colorectal cancer patients that help better identify the appropriate treatment strategies.

The 1200 Patients Project
Last January, The University of Chicago approved the creation of a Center for Personalized Therapeutics, directed by Mark Ratain, MD, the Leon O. Jacobson Professor of Medicine and UCCCC associate director for clinical sciences.

The center is expected to become an integral and highly visible part of UChicago biomedicine, incorporating both academic and clinical units.

The center is now awaiting approval to begin patient recruitment in a first-of-its-kind study that will incorporate broad genetic information into routine clinical practice for medical treatment decisions. Such information could allow physicians to predict which patients are most likely to respond positively to a given medication, experience severe side effects from medications, or require alternative dosing.

The study, named “The 1200 Patients Project” and led by Peter O’Donnell, MD, assistant professor of medicine, will include adult patients who are receiving ongoing care at The University of Chicago Medical Center. Individuals of all races and ethnic groups are eligible.

 “We believe that patients and providers will not only be eager to begin to incorporate genetic information into prescribing decisions, but also that our pilot system will engender the development of a new medical system model for personalized medical care,” said Dr. Ratain. “In this model, the genetic information of the patient is woven into the clinic visit encounter, allowing  a patient-specific treatment decision to be made.”

Symposium on Personalized Cancer Therapeutics
In October, the UCCCC along with the Committee on Clinical Pharmacology and Pharmacogenomics (CCPP), hosted a 1-day symposium that brought together national leaders in this rapidly developing field. Researchers in pharmacogenomics investigate how genetic variations can influence drug response. The symposium was held in the Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery.

“We’re here today because although we know that ideally an increased drug concentration will lead to a better patient response, the reality is that there are always patients who are resistant and patients who experience toxicity even at low drug concentrations,” said M. Eileen Dolan, PhD, professor of medicine, who was the primary event organizer and who is the CCPP chair.

She said that pharmacogenomics is a complicated field that gets even more complicated when cancer is present.

“In every field of pharmacogenomics, host genetics are involved. But with cancer, tumor genetics are also involved,” she explained. “The host and tumor are quite different, and they both contribute to the efficacy and toxicity of various treatments.”

The symposium included 12 scientific presentations—eight from world-renowned researchers from outside the University and four from junior faculty considered “rising stars.” The University of Chicago presenters included R. Stephanie Huang, PhD, who spoke about genome-wide discovery and clinical validation of pharmacogenomic markers for chemotherapy; Richard Jones, PhD, who discussed micro-western arrays as a tool for the personalized analysis of patient response to therapeutics; Samuel Volchenboum, MD, PhD, MS, who talked about new systems  biology tools for cancer diagnostics; and Michael Maitland, MD, PhD, who offered his thoughts about personalized cancer therapy with more recent, targeted chemotherapeutics.

UChicago researchers have been working in this area for more than a decade. Drs. Ratain, Dolan, and Nancy J. Cox, PhD, professor of medicine and human genetics, lead The University of Chicago Pharmacogenetics of Anticancer Agents Research (PAAR) Group. The group, which recently received $10.3 million over 5 years from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), aims to improve the efficacy of anticancer drugs by deciphering the impact of a person’s genes on his or her drug response.

PAAR has received continuous NIH funding since 2000.

M. Eileen Dolan, PhD, was the main organizer of the Personalized Cancer Therapeutics Symposium that attracted about 100 attendees, ranging from residents to genetics pioneers. In addition to Drs. Dolan and Ratain, the organizing committee consisted of UCCCC Director Michelle Le Beau, PhD, Kenan Onel, MD, PhD, and Walter Stadler, MD.