Researchers from university hospitals in Zurich, Basel, ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and the pharmaceutical company Roche set out to improve cancer diagnostics by developing a platform for the latest methods of molecular biology. The “Tumor Profiler” project aims to develop a comprehensive molecular profile of tumors in cancer patients, which has the potential to predict the effectiveness of a group of new cancer drugs. Thus, it will make it possible to provide personalized and optimized treatment recommendations to treating physicians.
Three years ago, researchers began a large-scale clinical study of 240 patients with metastatic skin cancer (melanoma), metastatic ovarian cancer, or acute myeloid leukemia. Comprehensive examination of these patients’ tumors provides researchers with a comprehensive understanding of the cellular makeup and biology of each tumor. Researchers recently published details of their study design in an article in Cancer Cell.
Investigation at the single cell level
New in the Tumor Profiler study is that it harnesses a set of advanced tumor testing methods to gain new insights by exploring how to combine them in a clinically beneficial way. This study goes beyond the current use of molecular biology methods practiced in leading hospitals. “We have combined all the advanced technologies available at ETH Zurich and the project partners. Working with doctors from Zurich and Basel, we have developed advances in oncology, an evolution that serves patients,” says Mitch Levesque, professor at Zurich University Hospital and one of the article’s authors.
The test scope includes the DNA of cancer cells, RNA, and proteins. The single-cell data provides researchers with an understanding of the cellular diversity of each tumor, which includes not only cancer cells but immune cells as well. “We examine the entire tumor and its microenvironment,” says Andreas Wiki, chief physician at the University Hospital Zurich. Part of the analysis also includes functional tests, in which tumor biopsies are treated with drugs in the laboratory to see if the drugs are working. Information from medical imaging and other patient data is also taken into account.
Informing treatment decisions
“We end up with massive amounts of data for each patient, which we prepare and analyze using data science methods,” says Gunnar Rach, professor at ETH Zurich and another similar author of the publication. The Tumor Profiler results are then made available to treating clinicians, who discuss them in interdisciplinary tumor board sessions. Since in science, detailed molecular testing is referred to by the suffixes -omics (genomics, transcription, and proteomics), this approach that includes many “omics regions” is called the omics approach.
Viola Heinzelmann, head of the department of gynecological oncology at the University Hospital Basel, and lead author of the study. This is why the study also focuses on whether and how molecular analyzes have influenced physicians’ treatment decisions.
In the long term, Tumor Profiler’s approach aims to expand patients’ treatment options in terms of personalized medicine. This includes addressing the issue of whether some patients would benefit from drugs that do not belong to the standard range of oncology treatments but are approved for other types of cancer.
The data collection for the Tumor Profiler study will be completed within two months, after which the research team will analyze the data and present the results.
This study was funded partly by Roche and partly by participating universities and university hospitals.
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