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By Leigh MacMillan | Photograph by Susan Urmy

As a child, I had a tailor. Of sorts – she was my grandma.

It was magical to see her transform folds of fabric into dresses, shirts or Halloween costumes. In my preteen years, I began to protest the measuring and fitting process. I didn’t like her pulling the frayed yellow measuring tape tight around my middle; I grumbled when the straight pins poked me as she adjusted a partly sewn garment. But my objections evaporated when the dressing room mirrors revealed time and again that my arms and legs had grown too long for the “standard” clothes in my size. Not so with the outfits grandma made for me. Each one was a perfect fit.

Can cancer treatments be tailored like clothing? Can the medicine be matched to “fit” each patient? Increasingly, the evidence is saying yes – cancer treatments can be tailored when tumors have specific genetic changes that are driving their growth, and when drugs exist that counteract those signals.

Simply put, personalized oncology means “matching the right drug to the right patient at the right time,” says William Pao, M.D., Ph.D., who is leading the new Personalized Cancer Medicine Initiative at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Within the next year, Vanderbilt-Ingram aims to make personalized cancer medicine a routine part of clinical care. Starting with lung cancer and melanoma, Pao and his colleagues will wrap their genetic measuring tapes around every tumor – and select therapies that fit the specific genetic changes they find.

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