START Researchers Continue to Usher In a New Era of Precision Medicine for Cancer

Monday, November 20, 2017

In May of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted accelerated approval for the first time for a cancer treatment based on a common biomarker rather than the location in the body where the tumor originated. The drug, Keytruda (pembrolizumab), which was first tested at START in San Antonio’s Medical Center, is now approved for treating solid tumors in any organ so long as the malignancy bears a specific genetic signature.

This move by the FDA marks an important milestone moving cancer from a disease that is treated according to the organ in which it is found rather than according to the common genetic mutations it displays. It’s called “precision medicine” and holds that cancer therapies should target a tumor’s specific molecular fingerprint and not, as most therapies do, attack healthy cells in the process of reaching malignant ones.

Keytruda, the same drug credited with curing former president Jimmy Carter’s cancer, has a well-known history here in San Antonio, where researchers with START were the first to show the drug can be an effective treatment for both lung cancer and melanoma.

“We were the first researchers to work with this drug, and it is now a part of the standard of care for many cancers,” says Anthony Tolcher, MD, Clinical Director for START.

With the FDA’s announcement, drugs like pembrolizumab are changing the way that physicians, patients and pharmaceutical companies think of cancer, shifting the focus away from the organ in which it is found, to the common genetic mutation it displays.

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