Photo by John Ulan
Treating cancer is what gets Charles Lee out of bed in the morning and what keeps him up at night. “I think, ‘Do I need to sleep for another hour or should I use that hour more constructively?’”
Lee is a medical geneticist and he is all too familiar with statistics like, “One in two men and one in three women will develop cancer.” That’s why Lee is spending every waking moment working on a potential solution — one beyond surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and traditional drug therapies. It’s genomic medicine and it will suggest a drug treatment specific to each patient’s needs.
It starts with a surgeon removing one tumour, cutting it into tiny pieces and implanting one piece into each of several mice. The tumour grows until it’s a treatable size, then the mice are each given a different drug or combination of drugs. A month later, Lee and his team can see how well each treatment worked on the same tumour. When a drug treatment overpowers a tumour, the successful results are put into a database, where the tumour’s genetic fingerprint is also stored. For each tumour in the database, there is a corresponding treatment that was successful in treating a mouse. In the real-life application, if a person’s tumour has a similar DNA profile to one in the database, the patient could work with their oncologist to decide whether to take the course of drugs that worked on the mouse with a similar tumour.
The project is underway at the billion-dollar Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn., where Lee is director. The lab opened four years ago with three employees but is now home to 386 employees — more than half of whom are researchers. Lee estimates the database and treatments will be ready for direct application in two to four years, though that feels like an eternity to him.
“I feel nervous and a major sense of urgency,” says Lee. “This can help countless people. It’s huge and we don’t want to waste any time.”