Genomic Cancer Testing Falls Apart

Kristen Sparrow • July 08, 2011

From today’s NYTimes, an article about a technique of using DNA testing to tailor cancer treatment is debunked with law suits ensuing. I flag this article because it falls into the Gold Rush treatment mentality that so pervades the U.S. health care industry. The only way to really make money off of healthcare in our system is to provide treatment once the illness is manifest. (Or to create a condition and then provide treatment for it, i.e. Viagra) There is no money to be made in prevention, so prevention takes a back seat. The only institution with enough heft to counter corporate clout is the government, but with the government itself under attack, and the research and regulatory agencies’ budgets being slashed, there’s not too much policing going on. So efforts to discover the actual carcinogens involved in the increased cancer rates are meager. The causes of autism are slow to be discovered, and unlikely to be acknowledged if, indeed, a blockbuster drug is implicated. And so it goes. This particular technology also fits into the category of “believing in treatments that don’t work.” I excerpted parts and highlighted others. (For more info about my practice, please click here.)

July 7, 2011
How Bright Promise in Cancer Testing Fell Apart

When Juliet Jacobs found out she had lung cancer, she was terrified, but realized that her hope lay in getting the best treatment medicine could offer. So she got a second opinion, then a third. In February of 2010, she ended up at Duke University, where she entered a research study whose promise seemed stunning.

Doctors would assess her tumor cells, looking for gene patterns that would determine which drugs would best attack her particular cancer. She would not waste precious time with ineffective drugs or trial-and-error treatment. The Duke program — considered a breakthrough at the time — was the first fruit of the new genomics, a way of letting a cancer cell’s own genes reveal the cancer’s weaknesses.

But the research at Duke turned out to be wrong. Its gene-based tests proved worthless, and the research behind them was discredited. Ms. Jacobs died a few months after treatment, and her husband and other patients’ relatives are suing Duke.

The episode is a stark illustration of serious problems in a field in which the medical community has placed great hope: using patterns from large groups of genes or other molecules to improve the detection and treatment of cancer.Companies have been formed and products have been introduced that claim to use genetics in this w ay, but assertions have turned out to be unfounded. While researchers agree there is great promise in this science, it has yet to yield many reliable methods for diagnosing cancer or identifying the best treatment.

Instead, as patients and their doctors try to make critical decisions about serious illnesses, they may be getting worthless information that is based on bad science. The scientific world is concerned enough that two prominent groups, the National Cancer Institute and the Institute of Medicine, have begun examining the Duke case; they hope to find new ways to evaluate claims based on emerging and complex analyses of patterns of genes and other molecules.

So far, the Food and Drug Administration “has generally not enforced” its regulation of tests created by individual labs because, until recently, such tests were relatively simple and relied heavily on the expertise of a particular doctor, said Erica Jefferson, a spokeswoman for the agency. But now, with labs offering more complex tests on a large scale, the F.D.A. is taking a new look at enforcement.

Dr. Scott Ramsey, director of cancer outcomes research at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center in Seattle, says there is already “a mini-gold rush” of companies trying to market tests based on the new techniques, at a time when good science has not caught up with the financial push. “That’s the scariest part of all,” Dr. Ramsey said.

And the Duke researchers continued to publish papers on their genomic signatures in prestigious journals. Meanwhile, they started three trials using the work to decide which drugs to give patients.

Dr. Baggerly and Dr. Coombes tried to sound an alarm. They got the attention of the National Cancer Institute, whose own investigators wanted to use the Duke system in a clinical trial but were dissuaded by the criticisms. Finally, they published their analysis in The Annals of Applied Statistics, a journal that medical scientists rarely read.

The situation finally grabbed the cancer world’s attention last July, not because of the efforts of Dr. Baggerly and Dr. Coombes, but because a trade publication, The Cancer Letter, reported that the lead researcher, Dr. Potti, had falsified parts of his résumé. He claimed, among other things, that he had been a Rhodes scholar.

“It took that to make people sit up and take notice,” said Dr. Steven Goodman, professor of oncology, pediatrics, epidemiology and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.

In the end, four gene signature papers were retracted. Duke shut down three trials using the results. Dr. Potti resigned from Duke. He declined to be interviewed for this article. His collaborator and mentor, Dr. Nevins, no longer directs one of Duke’s genomics centers.

The cancer world is reeling.

The Duke researchers had even set up a company — now disbanded — and planned to sell their test to determine cancer treatments. Duke cancer patients and their families, including Mrs. Jacobs’s husband, Walter Jacobs, say they feel angry and betrayed. And medical researchers see the story as a call to action. With such huge data sets and complicated analyses, researchers can no longer trust their hunches that a result does — or does not — make sense.

“Our intuition is pretty darn poor,” Dr. Baggerly said.