A new tumour profiling unit has opened in London this week with the aim of accelerating new personalised cancer treatments.

The unit, which is being housed in the Institute for Cancer Research, is raising £3.2 million to establish the new centre, which will bring genome sequencing to cancer patients.

The funds will add expert scientists to the centre, and provide for new specialist equipment and refurbished labs.

The unit’s mission is to change the way in which clinicians diagnose and monitor cancer, enabling doctors to develop treatment programmes that are tailored to the specific DNA mutations driving a cancer, at that particular point in time.

It will also have a major effect on the process of discovering and developing new cancer drugs, the ICR said in statement.

Some oncology medicines are already developed to fight against specific genetic mutations, with Roche’s breast cancer drug Herceptin and colorectal drug Avastin two primary examples.

Announcing the centre, Professor Alan Ashworth, chief executive of the ICR, said: “The idea of developing old-fashioned chemotherapies is going out of the window.

“Genome profiling opens up the possibility of using drugs in a context in which they were not originally developed. None of this is science fiction. It’s happening in a number of places around the world but we feel it will be absolutely routine within the next five to 10 years for every cancer patient.”

Before the advent of these types of ‘personalised medicines’ the only choice open to clinicians was chemotherapy, but this treatment is seen as a blunt instrument against cancer as it also attacks healthy cells, as well as the cancerous ones, causing many unwanted side effects.

These new treatments attack specific mutations – in the case of Herceptin, the HER2 mutations that can cause a particularly aggressive sub-type of breast cancer. The thinking in oncology now is that there are many cancers, rather than one form of cancer, which are driven by numerous sub types of genetic mutations.

Moving forward, the focus will tend to be on drugs that work against all of the known mutations that cause a cancer to spread or grow, as well as developing biomarkers to assess which patients can benefit from certain treatments.  

This new thinking is made possible by great advances in DNA sequencing technology over the past decade. While the first complete human genome sequence cost tens of millions of pounds — and several years — to produce, today cancer genomes can be sequenced in days at a cost measured in the hundreds of pounds.

The UK Government also announced recently that around 100,000 patients with cancer and rare diseases in England are to have their entire genetic code sequenced to aid research.

The government hopes that by developing these new centres – and making genetic information available for research – will have the combined effect of helping deliver better drugs to patients, while also making the UK more attractive for biopharmaceutical firms.