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  • CanRisk is a new online gene-based health-risk evaluation algorithm for detecting breast cancer
  • It identifies people with different levels of risk of breast cancer, not just those at high risk
  • As the infotech and biotech revolutions merge expect authority in medicine to be transferred to algorithms
  • CanRisk has the potential to provide a cheap, rapid, non-invasive, highly sensitive and accurate diagnosis before symptoms present
  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and is the 5th most common cause of death from cancer in women
  • Currently mammography screening, which has a sensitivity between 72% and 87%, is the gold standard for preventing and controlling breast cancer
  • For every death from breast cancer that is prevented by screening, it is estimated there will be three false-positive cases that are detected and treated unnecessarily
  • Lack of resources do not support breast cancer screening in many regions of the world where the incidence rates of the disease are rapidly increasing
  • In the near-term expect interest in the CanRisk algorithm to increase
 
 A new comprehensive gene-based breast cancer prediction device

 
A new online gene-based health-risk evaluation device called CanRisk has the potential to identify women with different levels of risk of breast cancer; not just women who are at high risk. Predicated on a comprehensive algorithm, CanRisk is one of several innovations currently in development, which include novel methods for predicting the recurrence of breast cancer, a new class of molecules that aim to halt or destroy breast cancer, and liquid biopsies, which determine the presence and recurrent risk of the disease through the detection of tumour cells in peoples’ blood.
 
Although over the past two decades there have been significant improvements in the detection and treatment of breast cancer, the disease remains the most common cancer in women worldwide, with some 1.7m new cases diagnosed each year, which account for about 25% of all cancers in women and it is the fifth most common cause of death from cancer in women, with over 0.52m deaths each year.
 
Game changer for breast cancer
 
Findings of CanRisk were reported in the January 2019 edition of Genetics in Medicine. Findings of a less comprehensive version of the device’s algorithm were published in the July 2016 edition of the same journal. Commenting on the 2019 study, Antonis Antoniou, Professor of Cancer Risk Prediction at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the two studies said: "This is the first time that anyone has combined so many elements into one breast cancer prediction tool. It could be a game changer for breast cancer and help doctors to tailor the care they provide depending on their patients' level of risk”.
 
When fully developed and approved, CanRisk will be well positioned to provide a cheap, rapid, non-invasive, highly sensitive and accurate diagnostic test to detect breast cancer early in people with diverse levels of risk. This might be expected to provide an alternative to the current gold standard population-based mammography screening and assist in making a significant dent in the vast and escalating global burden of the disease.
 
In this Commentary
 
This Commentary describes the algorithm that drives CanRisk, which benefits from the increasing availability of vast and growing amounts of genomic and other personal data and significant advances in genomic sequencing technologies. The confluence of these two phenomena facilitates and enhances the quality and speed of data analysis and drives the development of new and innovative diagnostic and prognostic cancer technologies. The fact that CanRisk is based on UK data and its algorithm is available to researchers globally, presents a potential  opportunity for medical research organizations in emerging regions of the world where the burden of breast cancer is increasing. The Commentary briefly describes the heterogeneous nature of breast cancer and highlights some of its complexities and risk factors. Originally perceived as a Western disease, breast cancer is growing rapidly in Asia and other regions of the world where it tends to be detected late and managed less effectively. Developed economies prevent and manage breast cancer through well-established population-based mammography screening programs. Because of  the lack of resources,  such screening programs are not widely available in low to middle income countries (LMIC). As the infotech and biotech revolutions merge expect authority in medicine to be transferred to Big Data algorithms such as CanRisk. This not only could provide an alternative to gold standard mammography screening, but also provide a cheap and effective device for use in developing nations where the burden of breast cancer is significant and increasing.
 
CanRisk: a world first
 
CanRisk, developed by members of the Centre for Cancer Genetic Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, UK, takes advantage of discoveries in both cancer genomics and epidemiology and aims to become a popular device used by primary care physicians, in consultation with their patients, to effectively assess patients’ diverse levels of risk of developing breast cancer. The device is predicated on an algorithm called BOADICEA (the Breast and Ovarian Analysis of Disease Incidence and Carrier Estimation Algorithm). This is the world’s first polygenic breast cancer risk model and the only one to-date, which is available to the international research community. Also, it is the first breast cancer risk model to incorporate pathology data and population-specific cancer incidences in risk calculations. The algorithm accounts for over 300 genetic risk factors, including BRCA1, [BReast CAncer gene] BRCA2PALB2CHEK2, and ATM, which are genes that have been found to impact a person’s chances of developing breast cancer. The device uses a Polygenic Risk Score (PRS) based on 313 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), [SNPs, pronounced ‘snips’, are the most common types of genetic variation in people. Each SNP represents a difference in a single DNA building block and is called a nucleotide] which explains 20% of breast cancer polygenic variance. CanRisk also includes a residual polygenic component, which accounts for other genetic/familial effects; known lifestyle/hormonal/reproductive risk factors and mammographic density [Dense breast tissue can make it harder to evaluate mammographic results and may also be associated with an increased risk of breast cancer].

 

Authority increasingly being transferred to algorithms
 
Over the past two decades we have increasingly learnt to accept the authority of Big Data algorithms. For example, without question we expect algorithms to give us directions, tell us what movies to watch, who to date, what clothes to wear, where to go on holiday, what flight to take, what hotel to stay in and where to eat. We are  comfortable with algorithms assigning us our credit rating, limiting our overdraft and capping our payments. Furthermore, we are beginning to accept the authority of algorithms in medicine. For example, we are gradually replacing the authority of primary care doctors with algorithms that can diagnose common diseases more accurately and more cost effectively.


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China’s rising MedTech industry and the dilemma facing Western companies

In December 2018, for the first time in history, the US FDA approved an algorithm to diagnose patients without a doctor’s interpretation. The algorithm, called IDx-DR, detects diabetic retinopathy by analysing images of the back of the eye. Indeed, we are living on the cusp of history when the twin revolutions of information technology and biotechnology are merging and providing the basis for us to transfer authority in medicine to algorithms. In the next two decades, it seems reasonable to assume that it will become common practice to accept the authority of algorithms such as CanRisk, which will inform us that we are suffering from a medical condition long before we present any signs or symptoms.
 
Increasing supply of data
 
CanRisk takes advantage of the fact that genetic and other risk factor data are becoming more easily available in clinical practice through electronic health records, biometric sensors that convert biological processes into electronic information, which computers can store and analyse, cost-effective high speed, high capacity genomic sequencing technologies, and efforts such as the 100,000 Genomes ProjectA UK Government sponsored initiative completed in December 2018, which collected, stored and analysed data from the genomes and medical records of 85,000 NHS England patients affected by cancer or rare disease. Genomics Englandwhich is wholly owned by the UK’s Department of Health, was set up in 2003 to deliver the project. Because CanRisk solely is based on UK population data, its findings are likely to be more applicable to similarly developed Western populations, and less so to populations in other regions of the world. This provides a potential opportunity for international organizations interested in early breast cancer diagnosis. 
 
International sequencing projects
 
The UK’s genomes project is part of a much larger rapidly growing and dynamic global genomics market comprised of data and gene sequencing technologies. 100,000 genomes have been the goal of several other nations interested in improving their healthcare - and lowering costs  - by carrying out precision medicine based on insights from sequencing data. Currently the global genomics market is estimated to be about US$19bn and projected to reach US$41bn by 2025. The market is driven by increasing government funding, the consequent rise  in the number of genomics projects, decreasing gene sequencing costs, growing application areas of genomics and the entry and fast growth of commercial players.

China has become the world’s leader in genomic sequencing. In 2010, the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) in Shenzhen was understood to be hosting a higher sequencing capacity than that of the entire US. While most government projects aim to sequence 100,000 genomes, China’s sequencing program is set to sequence 1m human genomes, which include subgroups of 50,000 people, each with specific conditions such as cancer or metabolic disease. The data will also include cohorts from different regions of China, which will facilitate “the analysis of different genetic backgrounds of subpopulations”.
 

Revolution in genome sequencing
 
The first human genome project began in 1990, took 13 years and about US$1bn to complete. The last two decades have seen a revolution in genome sequencing with dramatic increases in its speed and efficiency coupled with massive reductions in cost. Genomic sequencing has proved its usefulness as a diagnostic and prognostic tool. Today it is possible to get your genome sequenced for around US$1,000 in a few days and delivered by  post from firms such as Dante Labs and 24 Genetics in Europe, and Veritas Genetics and Sure Genomics in the US.
 
Breast cancer
 
Returning to breast cancer. It is important to note that the disease is not one, but  a group of conditions that manifest themselves with maladies in the same organ. Breasts are comprised of three main parts: lobules, which produce milk; ducts, which carry milk to the nipples; and fibrous and fatty connective tissue, which hold everything together. The type of breast cancer depends on which cells in the breast mutate, but most breast cancers begin in the ducts or lobules. Some mutated cells in the breast may never spread, however, most breast cancers tend to be invasive and may present with a number of different characteristics in terms of hardness and shape, which can provide some indication of their likely progression. Breast cancer can spread outside the breast through blood and lymph vessels. Further, there are significant differences in breast cancer at the genetic level. A study published in the April 2012 edition of Nature compared the genetic makeup of breast cancer tumour samples with their other characteristics for some 2,000 women, for whom information about the tumour characteristics had been meticulously recorded; and identified at least 10 distinct sub-types of breast cancer, each with its own unique characteristics. Although the study contributed to how breast cancer is diagnosed, classified and treated, in practice certain characteristics of these tumours were already known and tested for: most notably cellular receptors for estrogen, and progesterone, which are the two most significant steroid hormones responsible for various female characteristics. Their presence or absence generally suggests the potential utility of additional medication to accompany surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

 
Despite population screening and advanced therapies breast cancer remains a killer disease
 
Let us briefly consider breast cancer in the world’s most advanced and wealthiest nation: the US. Although there have been significant improvements in the detection and treatment of breast cancer in the US; still about 1 in 8 American women will develop an invasive type of the disease over the course of her lifetime. In 2019, an estimated 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the US, along with 62,930 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. Breast cancer death rates for women in the US are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer. As of January 2019, there were more than 3.1m women with a history of breast cancer in the US. Although breast cancer death rates in the US have been decreasing over the past three decades and women under 50 have experienced larger decreases, still some 41,760 are expected to die in 2019 from the disease. About 2,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in the US in 2019 where a man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 883.
 
Breast cancer challenges in Singapore
 
There are also breast cancer challenges in wealthy non-Western developed economies such as Singapore. Over the past four decades, the incidence of breast cancer in Singapore has more than doubled: from 25 to 65 per 100,000 women. Breast cancer is not just the most common cancer for Singaporean women, accounting for one in three cancers in women, but it is also the top killer. Data reported in the country’s Cancer Registry showed that 2,105 women died of the disease between 2011 and 2015. Notwithstanding, Singapore has extensive awareness-raising programs; population-wide mammography screening; excellent, multi-disciplinary primary and long-term care and improving palliative care, which have contributed to a significant increase in the survival rates of breast cancer patients. However, a substantial proportion of Singaporean women still appear to have a patchy knowledge of aspects of the disease, which leads to comparatively low participation rates in the nation’s breast cancer screening services, and this contributes to late presentation of the disease when it is more difficult to cure and more challenging to treat.

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Breast cancer growing rapidly in Asia
 
Breast cancer was once largely confined to developed Western countries and Australasia, but it has now become the most common cancer in Asia. Although Asian data on breast cancer are patchy, an Economist Intelligence Unit report, suggests that, “since the 1990s, increases in the incidence of breast cancer in Asia, as measured by age-standardised rates (ASRs), is four to eight times that of the global average”. Indeed, as younger cohorts of Asian women age and adopt Western diets and lifestyles (particularly fertility patterns, such as later first childbirth and shorter breast feeding), breast cancer incidence rates in Asia look set to converge with the much higher ones in the West.
 Further, in LMIC breast cancer is increasing at a more rapid rate than in the West and has become a significant healthcare challenge: 50% of breast cancer cases and 58% of deaths from the disease occur in LMIC.
 The significance of early detection
 
The good news is that if caught in its early stages, breast cancer can be treated effectively, with high survival rates. The average 5-year survival rate for women with invasive breast cancer is 90%. The average 10-year survival rate is 83%. If the cancer is located only in the breast, the 5-year survival rate of women with breast cancer is 99%. In all types of the disease early detection is the cornerstone of breast cancer control.
 
 Gold standard breast cancer mammography screening
 
The current gold standard for preventing and controlling breast cancer is population-based mammography screening. This is a non-invasive process that uses an x-ray of the breast to look for disease in women who do not have symptoms. The method has reasonable sensitivity (72%–87%) that increases with age and allows for the early detection of breast cancer, which helps increase survival, especially in women between 50 and 70. Notwithstanding, mammograms are not pleasant as the breast is squashed between two metal plates and further some women may find mammograms embarrassing.
 
Success of population-based mammography screening
 
Following a landmark Swedish study that began in 1977 mammography screening has been adopted in more than 26 developed countries worldwide. Findings of the study, reported in a 1989 edition of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggested that mortality from breast cancer dropped 31% after screening of women aged 39 to 74. More recent findings of the UK screening program published in the June 2013 edition of the British Journal of Cancer, suggested mortality rates from breast cancer were reduced by 20% in the screened group compared to the unscreened group across all age groups. A study published in 2018 in Cancer, which tracked 52,438 Swedish women aged 40-69 from 1977 to 2015, suggested that regular mammograms contributed to a 60% decrease in breast cancer death during the first 10-years of diagnosis, and a 47% reduced risk within 20-years. Research has shown that mammography has relatively little benefit for women under 50.
 
Diverging views about mammography screening
 
Despite evidence to support the benefits of population-based mammography screening, there are diverging views among healthcare professionals about the impact of several decades of high levels of screening. Some argue that traditional mammography screening stretches finite resources and is not cost-effective because the majority of people who undergo screening do not have cancer and may never go on to develop it. Others suggest that there are significant uncertainties about the magnitude of the harms from mammography screening especially associated with false positives (a test result, which wrongly indicates that breast cancer is present).

Challenges of mammography screening
 
The sensitivity of mammography is between 72% and 87%, but is higher in women over 50 and in women with fatty rather than dense breasts. Dense breast tissue can make it harder to evaluate results of a mammogram. According to the Marmot review, for every death from breast cancer that is prevented by screening, it is estimated there will be three over-diagnosed or false-positive cases that are detected and treated unnecessarily. The chance of having a false positive result after one mammogram ranges from 7% to 12%, depending on age (younger women are more likely to have false positive results). After 10 yearly mammograms, the chance of having a false positive is about 50-60%. The more mammograms a woman has, the more likely it is she will have a false positive result. This makes it difficult for doctors to weigh and communicate the benefits and risks of mammography screening programs and fuels interest in innovations such as CanRisk.
 
Takeaways
 
Mammography screening for breast cancer is not 100% accurate. Further, knowhow, trained healthcare professionals and significant resources are required to effectively implement and manage a well-organized and sustainable breast cancer screening program that targets the right population group and ensures effective coordination and quality of actions across the whole continuum of care. These attributes tend to exist only in developed wealthy countries. CanRisk, and other innovative breast cancer early diagnostic devices under development, offer the potential for cheap, rapid, reliable and exquisitely accurate diagnosis that can be easily used in primary care settings throughout the world. In time, as authority in medicine passes to algorithms, expect these new and innovative devices to replace mammography screening in wealthy countries and quickly become devices of choice in developing economies and significantly dent the vast and rapidly growing global burden of breast cancer.
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  • Competition is intensifying among scientists to develop and use gene editing and immunotherapy to defeat intractable diseases
  • Chinese scientists were the first to inject people with cells modified by the CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technique
  • Several studies have extracted a patient’s own immune cells, modified them using gene-editing techniques, and re-infused them into the patient to seek and destroy cancer cells
  • A new prêt à l'emploi gene editing treatment disables the gene that causes donor immune cells to attack their host
  • The technique harvests immune cells from a donor, modifies and multiplies them so that they may be used quickly, easily and cheaply on different patients
  • Commercial, technical, regulatory and ethical barriers to gene editing differ in different geographies 

Gene editing battles

Gene editing and immunotherapy are developing at a pace. They have been innovative and effective in the fight against melanoma, lung cancer, lymphomas and some leukaemias, and promise much more. Somatic gene therapy changes, fixes and replaces genes at the tissue or cellular levels to treat a patient, and the changes are not passed on to the patient’s offspring. Germ line gene therapy inserts genes into reproductive cells and embryos to correct genetic defects that could be passed on to future generations.  Although there are still many unanswered clinical, commercial and ethical questions surrounding gene therapy, its future is assured and will be shaped by unexpected new market entrants and competition between Chinese and Western scientists, which is gaining momentum.
  
14 February 2017

On the 14th February 2017 an influential US science advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine gave support to the modification of human embryos to prevent “serious diseases and disabilities” in cases where there are no other “reasonable alternatives”. This is one step closer to making the once unthinkable heritable changes in the human genome. The Report, however, insisted that before humanity intervenes in its own evolution, there should be a wide-ranging public debate, since the technology is associated with a number of unresolved ethical challenges. The French oppose gene editing, the Dutch and the Swedes support it, and a recent Nature editorial suggested that the EU is, “habitually paralysed whenever genetic modification is discussed”. In the meantime, clinical studies, which involve gene-editing are advancing at a pace in China, while the rest of the world appears to be embroiled in intellectual property and ethical debates, and playing catch-up.
 
15 February 2017

On the 15th February 2017, after a long, high-profile, heated and costly intellectual property action, judges at the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled in favor of Professor Feng Zhang and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, over patents issued to them associated with the ownership of the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9: a cheap and easy-to-use, all-purpose gene-editing tool, with huge therapeutic and commercial potential.
 
The proceedings were brought by University College Berkeley who claimed that the CRISPR technology had been invented by Professor Jennifer Doudna of the University, and Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, and described in a paper they published in the journal Science in 2012. Berkeley argued that after the 2012 publication, an “obvious” development of the technology was to edit eukaryotic cells, which Berkeley claimed is all that Zhang did, and therefore his patents are without merit.

The Broad Institute countered, suggesting that Zhang made a significant inventive leap in applying CRISPR knowledge to edit complex organisms such as human cells, that there was no overlap with the University of California’s research outcomes, and that the patents were therefore deserved. The judges agreed, and ruled that the 10 CRISPR-Cas9 patents awarded to Zhang and the Broad Institute are sufficiently different from patents applied for by Berkeley, so that they can stand. 
 
The scientific community

Interestingly, before the 15th February 2017 ruling, the scientific community had appeared to side with Berkeley. In 2015 Doudna, and Charpentier were awarded US$3m and US$0.5m respectively for the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in life sciences and the Gruber Genetics Prize. In 2017 they were awarded the Japan Prize of US$0.45m for, “extending the boundaries of life sciences”. Doudna and Charpentier have each founded companies to commercially exploit their discovery: respectively Intellia Therapeutic, and CRISPR Therapeutics.
 
16 February 2017

A day after the patent ruling, Doudna said: “The Broad Institute is happy that their patent didn’t get thrown out, but we are pleased that our patent based on earlier work can now proceed to be issued”. According to Doudna, her patents are applicable to all cells, whereas Zhang’s patents are much more narrowly indicated. “They (Zhang and the Broad Institute) will have patents on green tennis balls. We will get patents on all tennis balls,” says Doudna.
 
Gene biology

Gene therapy has evolved from the science of genetics, which is an understanding of how heredity works. According to scientists life begins in a cell that is the basic building block of all multicellular organisms, which are made up of trillions of cells, each performing a specific function. Pairs of chromosomes comprising a single molecule of DNA reside in a cell’s nucleus. These contain the blueprint of life: genes, which determine inherited characteristics. Each gene has millions of sequences organised into segments of the chromosome and DNA. These contain hereditary information, which determine an organism’s growth and characteristics, and genes produce proteins that are responsible for most of the body’s chemical functions and biological reactions.

Roger Kornberg, an American structural biologist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription", describes the Impact of human genome determination on pharmaceuticals:
 
 
China’s first
 
While American scientists were fighting over intellectual property associated with CRISPR-Cas9, and American national scientific and medical academies were making lukewarm pronouncements about gene editing, Chinese scientists  had edited the genomes of human embryos in an attempt to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassemia and HIV, and are planning further clinical studies. In October 2016, Nature reported that a team of scientists, led by oncologist Lu You, at Ghengdu’s Sichuan University in China established a world first by using CRISPR-Cas9 technology to genetically modify a human patient’s immune cells, and re-infused them into the patient with aggressive lung cancer, with the expectation that the edited cells would seek, attack and destroy the cancer. Lu is recruiting more lung cancer patients to treat in this way, and he is planning further clinical studies that use similar ex vivo CRISPR-Cas9 approaches to treat bladder, kidney and prostate cancers
 
The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy
 
Conscious of the Chinese scientists’ achievements, Carl June, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, believes America has the scientific infrastructure and support to accelerate gene editing and immunotherapies. Gene editing was first used therapeutically in humans at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, when scientists modified the CCR5 gene (a co-receptor for HIV entry) on T-cells, which were injected in patients with AIDS to tackle HIV replication. Twelve patients with chronic HIV infection received autologous cells carrying a modified CCR5 gene, and HIV DNA levels were decreased in most patients.
 
Medical science and the music industry

The Parker Institute was founded in 2016 with a US$250m donation from Sean Parker, founder of Napster, an online music site, and former chairman of Facebook. This represents the largest single contribution ever made to the field of immunotherapy. The Institute unites 6 American medical schools and cancer centres with the aim of accelerating cures for cancer through immunotherapy approaches. 

Parker, who is 37, believes that medical research could learn from the music industry, which has been transformed by music sharing services such as Spotify. According to Parker, more scientists sharing intellectual property might transform immunotherapy research. He also suggests that T-cells, which have had significant success as a treatment for leukaemia, are similar to computers because they can be re-programed to become more effective at fighting certain cancers. The studies proposed by June and colleagues focus on removing T-cells, from a patient’s blood, modifying them in a laboratory to express chemeric antigen receptors that will attack cancer cells, and then re-infusing them into the patient to destroy cancer. This approach, however, is expensive, and in very young children it is not always possible to extract enough immune cells for the technique to work.

 
Prêt à l'emploi therapy

Waseem Qasim, Professor of Cell & Gene Therapy at University College London and Consultant in Paediatric immunology at Great Ormond Street Hospital, has overcome some of the challenges raised by June and his research. In 2015 Qasim and his team successfully used a prêt à l'emploi gene editing technique on a very young leukaemia patient. The technique, developed by the Paris-based pharmaceutical company Cellectis, disables the gene that causes donor-immune cells to attack their host. This was a world-first to treat leukaemia with genetically engineered immune cells from another person. Today, the young leukaemia patient is in remission. A second child, treated similarly by Qasim in December 2015, also shows no signs of the leukaemia returning. The cases were reported in 2017 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
 
Universal cells to treat anyone cost effectively

The principal attraction of the prêt à l'emploi gene editing technique is that it can be used to create batches of cells to treat anyone. Blood is collected from a donor, and then turned into “hundreds” of doses that can then be stored frozen. At a later point in time the modified cells can be taken out of storage, and easily re-infused into different patients to become exemplars of a new generation of “living drugs” that seek and destroy specific cancer cells. The cost to manufacture a batch of prêt à l'emploi cells is estimated to be about US$4,000 compared to some US$50,000 using the more conventional method of altering a patient’s cells and returning them to the same patient. Qasim’s clinical successes raise the possibility of relatively cheap cellular therapy using supplies of universal cells that could be dripped into patients' veins on a moment’s notice.
 
Takeaways
 
CRISPR-Cas9 provides a relatively cheap and easy-to-use means to get an all-purpose gene-editing technology into clinics throughout the world. Clinical studies using the technology have shown a lot of promise especially in blood cancers. These studies are accelerating, and prêt à l'emploi gene editing techniques as an immunotherapy suggest a new and efficacious therapeutic pathway. Notwithstanding the clinical successes, there remain significant clinical, commercial and ethical challenges, but expect these to be approached differently in different parts of the world. And expect these differences to impact on the outcome of the scientific race, which is gaining momentum.
 
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A breakthrough in the treatment of prostate cancer

  • Experts describe new prostate cancer study as the disease’s ‘Rosetta Stone’

  • Prostate cancer kills nearly 11,000 men each year in the UK alone

  • Men with untreatable prostate cancer could benefit from standard drugs

  • Study opens black box of genetics to treat previously untreatable cancer

  • Mediterranean diet lowers mortality risk for men with prostate cancer

A new UK-US cancer study could transform prostate cancer treatment, and give hope to sufferers whose cancers have become resistant to treatment. Experts’ hail the study as “incredibly exciting and ground breaking”. According to Professor Johann de Bono, of the Institute of Cancer Research, London, who led the British team, the study opens up a new era of treatment, in which men will be given drugs tailored to their tumours. 

Cancer is lethal when it metastasises and becomes resistant to drugs. The study, published in the journal Cell in 2015, involved 150 men close to death whose prostate cancers had spread throughout their bodies, and were not responding to available drugs. 
     

Prostate cancer’s ‘Rosetta Stone’

The research has opened up a black box in cancer genetics, and changes the way we think about and treat prostate cancer. Now that doctors have a map of which mutations to look for, they could search for them using a £200 test. 

De Bono, extracted samples of the cancer from metastatic tumors, and analysed their DNA, which showed that 90% of the men carried genetic mutations in their tumors, which matched drugs already on the market. A third of the men studied had tumors suitable for treatment with new drugs called PARP inhibitors.

‘’We're describing this study as prostate cancer's Rosetta Stone because of the ability it gives us to decode the complexity of the disease, and to translate the results into personalised treatment plans for patients. What's hugely encouraging is that many of the key mutations we have identified are ones targeted by existing cancer drugs - meaning that we could be entering a new era of personalised cancer treatment," says de Bono.

According to de Bono, “We are changing how long these men are living. This gives me hope that I can make a difference for men dying of prostate cancer. There is still a lot of work to do. This is not a cure, but it is a huge step forward.” 
 

Prostate cancer

In an earlier Commentary we discussed the dilemmas men face when they have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, and each day in the UK alone 110 men are diagnosed with the disease. Cancer begins to grow in the prostate, a gland in the male reproductive system, and develops slowly. Although it can be cured if diagnosed early, there may be no signs that you have it for many years, and symptoms often only become apparent when your prostate is large enough to affect the urethra. Here cancer expert Professor Karol Sikora describes the symptoms of advanced prostate cancer:

         
                (click to play the video) 

Once prostate cancer begins to spread it becomes difficult to treat, and each year nearly 11,000 men die of the disease in the UK. Treatment options include watchful waiting, surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, biological therapy and bisphosphonate therapy.
 

Mediterranean diet

According to research published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, a Mediterranean diet rather than a Western diet may improve survivorship for men diagnosed with prostate cancer.

This is welcome news because there is a dearth of evidence to counsel men living with prostate cancer on how they can modify their lifestyle to lower the risk of mortality. The new study from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, investigated the diets of 926 men with prostate cancer for an average of 14 years after their diagnosis, and in 2015 published their findings, which suggest that people living with prostate cancer who ate a predominantly Western diet, high in red and processed meat, fatty dairy foods, and refined grains, were two-and-a-half times more likely to die from prostate cancer, and had a 67% increased risk of all-cause mortality, compared with participants who followed a Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains, and healthy oils. In comparison, men who follow a Mediterranean diet had a 36% lower risk of all-cause mortality.

Lead author Meng Yang suggests treating the findings cautiously, "Given the scarcity of literature on the relationship between post-diagnostic diet and prostate cancer progression, and the small number of disease-specific deaths in the current study.”
 

Dietary supplements and vitamins

Researchers continue to look for foods (or substances in them) that can help lower prostate cancer risk. Scientists have found some substances in tomatoes (lycopenes) and soybeans (isoflavones) that might help prevent prostate cancer. Studies are now looking at the possible effects of these compounds more closely. Scientists are also trying to develop related compounds that are even more potent, and might be used as dietary supplements. 
 

Takeaways

Some studies suggest that certain vitamin and mineral supplements (such as vitamin E and selenium) might lower prostate cancer risk. But a large study of this issue, called the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT), found that neither vitamin E nor selenium supplements lowered prostate cancer risk after daily use for about five years. In fact, men taking the vitamin E supplements were later found to have a slightly higher risk of prostate cancer.

De Bono’s breakthrough in cancer genetics means that many men whose prostate cancer was thought untreatable could be given drugs that are already on hospital shelves. Some patients have already benefited, and are alive more than a year on, despite only having been given weeks to live.

 
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David Bowtell

Head, Cancer Genomics and Genetics Program, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne, Australia

Professor Bowtell is the Head of the Cancer Genomics and Genetics Program at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and PI for the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study (AOCS).

Professor Bowtell is one of Australia’s leading ovarian cancer and human molecular genetics researchers.

He was Director of Research at Peter Mac for the last decade, returning to fulltime research in 2010 to lead the ovarian cancer arm of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) $27 million involvement in the International Cancer Genomics Consortium, a world-wide effort aimed at mapping all the significant mutations in common cancers.

 Professor Bowtell heads the Australian Ovarian Cancer Study, a nationally collaborative project involving over 2000 women with ovarian cancer and one of the largest cohort studies of ovarian cancer in the world.

He is a molecular biologist and his lab focuses on the genomic analysis of ovarian cancer, with a focus on primary and acquired drug resistance. His lab is also funded from Cancer Australia and the US DoD to investigate high-risk BRCA mutations in women with ovarian cancer.


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