June 15, 2023

Precision oncology focuses on treating patients' individual cancer needs

Close up of hands working in a laboratory setting

New initiatives at UW Health seek to highlight and streamline patient access to individualized, data-driven cancer care.

Facilitating greater connections between new treatment research at UW Carbone Cancer Center and opportunities in patient care is a top focus of the newly-created Precision Health division of UW Health.

“The focus is figuring out ways to expand services and options available to our patients,” said Elizabeth Kearney, Senior Director of Precision Health at UW Health.

Cancer is driven by genetic changes, either those inherited or those developed during a person’s lifetime. Kearney said understanding the unique make-up of each patient’s cancer, done through what’s called a somatic tumor analysis, helps oncology care teams decide which therapy has the best chance of benefitting the patient.

The Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board, a collaboration between UW Carbone and regional medical centers, offers cancer patients statewide access to a panel of experts who can analyze genetic test results and provide recommendations on treatment options. This resource is particularly helpful to patients with advanced stage or recurrent cancer who could be candidates for clinical trials, newly-approved or existing targeted therapies, or using approved drugs for novel purposes.

Kearney is working closely with the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board, as well as UW Carbone’s clinical trial leadership to ensure more patients are aware of these resources that can offer more individualized care.

“Sometimes with cancer care, the best path forward can be a clinical trial,” she said. “Shared decision making between a patient and their provider is key.”

UW Health’s genetic counseling team can also help patients understand whether they have inherited higher genetic risks for certain cancers. That information can empower patients to have risk-reduction surgeries as well as plan expanded cancer screenings that can help in early diagnosis.

“For some people you may not be able to prevent cancer flat out, but those screenings can help find cancer earlier when it’s more treatable and not as aggressive,” she said.

To help advance UW Carbone’s breadth of precision oncology research, she also is focused on integrating more opportunities for patients to share tumor tissue, blood and other biological samples through WiscShare, which is run through UW Carbone’s biobank.

Under WiscShare, interested patients can give permission for the biobank to share samples that are collected through the normal course of treatment with researchers. These samples also can be securely stored for future use. Patient names and identifying medical information are protected.

Dr. Stephanie McGregor, faculty leader for the biobank and associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UW, said without patient consent, specimens that could be game-changing for scientists are discarded.

“We are trying to make patients aware that they have the opportunity to contribute to groundbreaking science even if they don’t do anything extra – it might not seem like much, but these samples form the foundation of the work that is making precision medicine a reality,” McGregor said.