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Docs tout new road map for cancer treatment

This is an undated company handout photo of

This is an undated company handout photo of the drug Herceptin.

The new generation of cancer therapies should be more targeted to individuals and clinical trials must be shorter so drugs reach patients faster, a doctor group said Thursday in announcing a new blueprint for cancer research.

Marking the 40th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon's War On Cancer, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the nation's largest group of cancer specialists, launched a new plan for the coming decades.

"What we're trying to do with this blueprint is stake out a vision," Dr. Neal Meropol, one of three executive editors of the report, said during a teleconference Thursday.

"We need to identify and prioritize molecular targets that have the greatest promise for improving survival," said Meropol, chief of hematology and oncology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

Huge strides have been made since Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, said Dr. Mark G. Kris, another executive editor and a cancer specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. In the early 1970s, he said, few children survived leukemia. Now the cure rate is 80 percent, and the same is true for many forms of the disease that affect adults.

Although the editors of the report talked about moving rapidly toward more personalized care -- largely based on genetic targets unique to each form of cancer -- cancer researchers said there are no magic bullets on the horizon.

"Everybody always hopes for a universal mechanism, something that will result in a general, applicable treatment that will cure cancer," said Dr. Scott Powers, director of the Cancer Genome Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, one of 11 centers in the New York Genome Center that will open in February. "If we've learned anything in the last 25 years, it's that there will not be a universal treatment."

What gene-seeking cancer researchers are hunting down now, Powers said, are aberrant sequences of DNA that drive the growth of tumors. Knowing where those genes are and how to stop them is the challenge for cancer researchers and the developers of targeted drugs.

He said about 200 of those genes are now known, but hundreds more are being sought. A successful example of a gene target is the HER-2 gene that affects about 25 percent of women who develop breast cancer. The HER-2 gene leads to a more aggressive form of the disease.

The drug Herceptin, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998, Powers said, has helped save thousands of lives by blocking the gene's activity.

Doctors who launched the new blueprint for cancer research Thursday said the hope is to find more gene targets like HER-2.


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