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By Melissa Marino | Photograph by Susan Urmy

With the promise of personalized cancer medicine comes an unsettling question:

Even if we know the genetic profile of a patient’s tumor, do we have the corresponding therapies to treat it effectively?

Right now, probably not.

The online “Catalogue of Somatic Mutations in Cancer” lists more than 80,000 mutations in more than 13,000 genes that have been linked to cancer.

Currently there are only a few dozen targeted cancer therapies approved and in clinical use – many of them targeting the same biological pathway. And of the hundreds undergoing clinical trials, only one or two new drugs are approved each year.

That leaves a wide array of cancer-associated mutations without corresponding targeted therapies – and a lot of patients without the benefit of tailored treatment options.

“Recent advances in identifying the molecular drivers of some cancers allows us to more precisely predict who will benefit or not benefit from certain treatments,” says Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. “But now, we need to understand those drivers for each and every tumor and have a wide menu of options to choose from so that each patient can benefit from this kind of precision.”

Drug discovery and development was once the exclusive realm of the pharmaceutical industry. And industry is certainly still critical in expanding the selection of new targeted cancer therapies. But academic institutions are becoming increasingly important in the discovery and development of drug candidates.

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