DNA sequencing test could aid selection of cancer treatment

Selecting a patient’s cancer treatment could become easier and cheaper thanks to plans to create a standard test with DNA sequencing technology.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has awarded a grant to a consortium led by US medical company Life Technologies to develop a test for certain genes that affect how well different cancer drugs are likely to work on a patient.

‘There are a very limited number of differences in genes that are definitively associated with specific decisions in cancer,’ Ellen Beasley, Life Technologies’ head of research and development, told The Engineer.

‘By understanding the difference that occurs between the DNA in your blood and the DNA in your tumour, you can understand its genetic history [that is, how the DNA has mutated]. And that potentially defines the Achilles’ heel for that tumour.’

The project also involves pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. ‘For them, those potentially novel hallmarks of the tumour are the next target,’ said Beasley.

‘There’s continuing interest in identifying better drug targets for sub-species of tumours and biomarkers for whether a tumour will respond to a drug or not, or whether a patient will progress rapidly or more slowly.’

The company plans to improve and validate its Ion Torrent Personal Genome Machine, which can read long sequences of DNA in a number of hours using semiconductor technology developed and licensed by Imperial College London spin-out DNA Electronics.

Life Technologies will also create analysis software to make it easier and faster to turn the DNA sequence data into usable information for doctors, helping to bring the costs of each test down from £1,800 to a goal of £300.

‘These instruments can quickly overwhelm you with information,’ said Beasley. ‘The whole concept of how we visualise genomic data is a challenge when you start thinking about presenting it to a medical geneticist.

‘How do you take those variants, filter them so it doesn’t remove something of importance and then present them so someone can visualise it, interact with it and make decisions based on it that are to the benefit of patients?’

A study by charity Cancer Research UK will use the technology to demonstrate the benefit of routinely testing tumour samples, starting with tests for cancer markers in nine known genes.

Another study by Oxford NIHR Biomedical Research Centre will also test 150 genes to look for further cancer markers to improve the ability to classify tumours and select appropriate treatments.