Glioblastoma is one of the most common, aggressive, and challenging forms of brain cancer to treat in adults with nearly 10,000 people in the US diagnosed every year. With the current therapeutic approach, median survival is little more than a year.
Now, a computation genomics group led by Dr. Raul Rabadan together with an experimental team led by Drs. Iavarone and Lasorella at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University Medical Center, is bringing new hope. In two studies, one in Science in 2012, and a new study published on August 5, 2013 in Nature Genetics, the group revealed that several glioblastoma patients they studied had the same specific gene mutations, which could potentially be treated with currently available FDA-approved drugs. “We found complex patterns of mutations in brain tumors,” Rabadan explains. “However, behind the complexity, there are novel approaches.”
While every tumor has dozens of mutated genes within it, identifying these genes and using the right drugs to attack them has always been difficult. The secret, according to Rabadan, is the latest technology available for reading cancer genomes. “The last two years we’ve been very involved with the analysis of genomes for cancers, and the technology has changed dramatically: how we can approach the cancer, how we identify these mutations,” says Rabadan. “With these sequencing technologies we are able to read cancer genomes, and readers of cancer genomes can develop a cure.”
Once the cancer genomes are read, the genes that enable the cancer – called driver genes – can be identified and treated. With glioblastoma, the team found eighteen new driver genes affiliated with glioblastoma. “We’ve been wondering which of the patients get this cancer, and we’ve realized several things,” says Rabadan. “Every cancer is a different beast, and knowing how to read the cancer genome can give us a better understanding. It’s like turning on a microscope and having all of the [tumor’s components] right there.”
Previously, Rabadan collaborated with Dr. Falini in Italy and Dr. Pasqualucci at Columbia to study the genome of a rare type of leukemia called hairy cell leukemia. The collaboration uncovered a dramatic discovery: 100 percent of patients had the same mutation in the same gene. Interestingly, the same mutation occurs in melanoma where new drugs have been recently approved. “We were very excited when we realized all the patients have this same mutation,” says Rabadan. “It really was an astonishing discovery.”
New drugs are getting tested in clinical trials by Rabadan’s fellow collaborators in Italy, who did the first samples for the research. From here, Rabadan is confident that genome reading will become a part of all cancer treatment. “I think now this will happen in the future,” he says. “Just sequencing cancers will be part of the technology of what every doctor will know. I think for some cancers it will be soon.”