Ultra-personal therapy: Gene tumor boards guide cancer care

sAN DIEGO — Doctors were just guessing a decade ago when they gave Alison Cairnes’s husband a new drug they hoped would shrink his lung tumors. Now she takes it too, but the choice was no guesswork. Sophisticated gene tests suggested it would fight her gastric cancer, and they were right.

Cancer patients increasingly are having their care guided by gene tumor boards, a new version of the hospital panels that traditionally decided whether surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy would be best. These experts study the patient’s cancer genes and match treatments to mutations that seem to drive the disease.

“We dissect the patient’s tumor with what I call the molecular microscope,” said Dr. Razelle Kurzrock, who started a board at the University of California, San Diego, where Cairnes is treated.

It’s the kind of care many experts say we should aim for — precision medicine, the right drug for the right person at the right time, guided by genes. There are success stories, but also some failures and many questions:

Will gene-guided care improve survival? Does it save money or cost more? What kind of gene testing is best, and who should get it?

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