Breakthroughs: Personalized Cancer Care

Early in the 21st century, the National Cancer Institute hoped to establish personalized, individually tailored treatment as the standard of care for all cancer patients. With the human genome successfully sequenced in 2003, researchers were given the key that would go toward identifying an individual’s susceptibility for specific forms of cancer, along with the treatment options that would give each patient the best chance of success.

The team at the University of Arizona Cancer Center began exploring the concept of “personalized cancer care” in the mid-1970s — long before most researchers were even prepared to entertain the idea as a possibility.

“We laid the foundation for what would become personalized or precision medicine,” David Alberts, MD, said. “We did some of the first work in the field, and we had a visionary in Syd Salmon who was certain that this was going to become the standard of care one day.”

In fact, it was Dr. Salmon’s groundbreaking work in multiple myeloma that helped set the stage for personalized treatment. Dr. Salmon, along with Anne W. Hamburger, PhD, pioneered a research approach that involved attempts to clone these myeloma cells and test various anticancer drug interventions on these “stem cells” to reduce patient risk, while developing the best possible treatment plan.

These findings were first published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1978. Cancer researchers across the globe were blown away.

“It was that paper that originally made me want to come to the University of Arizona,” Dr. Stea said. “You got the sense that this was the perfect environment for an academic career and to pursue major cutting-edge research projects.”

Drs. Salmon and Hamburger filed a patent for the “Primary Bioassay of Human Tumor Stem Cells,” which was granted in 1983. Their work was featured on the cover of Time, and, according to the April 1985 edition of the American Association for Cancer Research Journal, would be applied “to various studies of basic cancer biology, pathology, cellular interaction, and cytogenetics, as well as for cancer diagnosis and testing of Phase II agents and preclinical drug screening of new compounds.”

This cloning procedure led to countless breakthroughs, particularly for Dr. Salmon’s longtime collaborator and friend, Dr. Alberts. This was around the time when Dr. Alberts established himself as a pioneer in the field of translational cancer prevention, stopping the disease in its tracks before it could wreak havoc.

During the late 1970s, ovarian cancer was one of the most difficult forms of the disease to successfully treat. Screening techniques hadn’t advanced to the point where ovarian cancer could be found in its earliest stages, and treatment options were limited, at best. Dr. Alberts developed a way for ovarian cancer therapies to be administered directly into the abdomen or pelvis through a tube, targeting the unhealthy cancer cells, while leaving the healthy surrounding tissue unharmed. This procedure, known as intraperitoneal therapy, has become the safest, most reliable, and most successful form of ovarian cancer treatment currently available.

Dr. Alberts has published dozens of papers on the topic, as well as a book, “Intraperitoneal Therapy for Ovarian Cancer,” in 2010.

In order for this kind of research to take place, however, advances would need to be made in the field of cell and tissue testing. The ideas and theories were happening so fast that the technology of the era struggled to keep pace.

-Nick Prevenas, Nov. 5, 2013

This series features only a sampling of the countless groundbreaking research projects and inspiring patient care stories that have taken place at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. Please click here to contribute your own story.

OUR HISTORY: This is a series of essays and interviews discussing the history and impact of the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

• Part 1: In the beginning
• Part 2: The 'Wild West' of cancer research
• Part 3: Breakthroughs: Personalized cancer care
• Part 4: Breakthroughs: Translational research
• Part 5: The future
• Part 6: The right tools; the right time; the right outcomes