Healthy living: Personalized cancer care
This week’s healthy living takes a look at a new personalized way to treat people with cancer that’s happening in San Diego.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1.6 million people in our country will be diagnosed with cancer this year. About one-third will die from the disease.
While survival rates for certain types of cancer have improved over the years, the way doctors treat it has remained the same and unfortunately, the chemotherapy cocktail most patients endure is often ineffective.
But a San Diego entrepreneur is working to change that. His life depends on it, and if you have cancer, yours may too.
CureMatch is a startup company focusing on personal cancer care. It’s founder, Blaise Barrelet, is a venture capitalist with a background in big data and artificial intelligence. He’s been very successful launching various tech companies. He sold San Diego-based Webside Story in a billion dollar deal in 2004.
CureMatch is much more personal.
"I got diagnosed with cancer and it really changed the way I look at life science," Barrelet said.
Barrelet, a husband and father, was living the good life in Rancho Santa Fe when he learned four years ago he has an aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
"At first you’re in shock, numb, didn’t know what to do and then I started to research," he said.
His research made him realize standard chemotherapy was not the answer.
"The standard of care for most cancer is chemo. I think people believe cancer is attached to an organ and that everybody who’s got pancreatic cancer has the same cancer and it’s absolutely not true," Barrelet said.
In fact, the genetic makeup of every tumor is as individual as a fingerprint. No two cancers are exactly the same. But the standard for treating cancer today, chemo and radiation, is approached like a one treatment works for most.
"We have good drugs, but if you give the a drug to the wrong patient, it doesn’t work," said Dr. Razelle Kurzrock, one of the nation’s leading Oncologists.
Kurzrock was recruited from MD Anderson Cancer to work at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. She’s also a co-founder of CureMatch.
"In the past it’s been a guessing game. And we would give a drug to a patient and out of 100 patients, 20 would really benefit and 80 would receive no benefit and might even be harmed by the drug. Now we’re beginning to understand exactly which drugs and combo’s of drugs to give to each individual patient to see each tumor as an individual tumor and match patients with the right drugs," she said.
Using technology created at the Moores Cancer Center and the San Diego Supercomputer Center, Dr. Kurzrock, along with renowned scientist and CureMatch Co-Founder Igor Tsigelny, are able to match cancer patients with the most effective drugs.
And it’s not ways. Of the 300 FDA approved cancer drugs, if you combine two of them, there are 45,000 options. When you combine three, there are 5.4 billion.
"There is no way a doctor or anybody. I don’t care how smart they are can process that information," Dr. Kurzrock said.
But the supercomputer can in about 10 minutes. Through genomic sequencing, it can determine which combination of drugs will have the best chance of killing cancer cells.
After a patient’s blood or tumor samples are analyzed, they receive a CureMatch report. It includes a detailed molecular profile of their tumor and the top five to 10 combinations of FDA approved drugs that will target their cancer.
The results are then sent to the patient’s oncologist.
"There’s a mixed feeling there. I think oncologists are scared. It’s no different than cab drivers being scared of Uber. It’s gonna happen, they’re gonna have to be part of it. And we explain we’re not here to replace them, we’re here to empower them," Barrelet said.
The technology is currently available to patients at Moore’s Cancer Center. The goal of CureMatch is to make it available to anyone anywhere.
"I don’t want to exaggerate what we can do, but I do think it’s making an impact and that slowly we’re gonna be transforming cancer through these types of modalities," Dr. Kurzrock said.
For Barrelet, the stakes are high.
The CureMatch team predicts in 10 to 15 years, cancer will be a treatable, chronic disease, much like diabetes or even AIDs.
The cost for genomic sequencing of tumors? $5,000.
Doctors are UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center are already offering it to their patients, which some insurance companies will cover.