Precision Oncology is a term that we often hear these days – Can you briefly explain what it means?
The term ‘Precision Oncology’ describes the ability to predict which patients could benefit from a particular cancer therapy. Using Precision Oncology, we try to characterize the individual disease, or in this case the individual cancer, as precisely and as deeply as possible to understand its biology. This is because if we are able to understand the biology of a given disease in a given patient, we can then try to select its treatment in an individualised way. In essence, Precision Oncology means offering tailored cancer treatment based on the characteristics of the individual disease. Instead of the one size fits all approach, or the same treatment for all patients, we individualize or personalize cancer therapy.
You talk about a ‘multi-omics’ approach –what do you mean by this and how is it related to patient care?
Multi-omics means trying to analyse individual cancers on multiple layers. For instance, the ‘genomics’ layer has become very important in clinical cancer medicine, and we use it to try and analyse the DNA or the RNA of the cancer, so the genetic characteristics of a cancer as completely as possible. There are other ‘omic’ layers. There is ‘transcriptomics’, which analyses the message that is derived from the genetic material in a cancer, or proteomics’, where we not only look at the genes, and the message that is derived from the genes, but also at the proteins that are built based on the message that is derived from the genetic material. This all sounds rather complicated, but it basically means that we need to capture multiple layers of patient characterization, and if we have that, we can understand the individual cancers and hopefully treat them in an individualised way.
In your opinion, why is collaboration between the world of research and clinical oncology important?
In my personal opinion as a physician who also has a science background, it is extremely important, because to design optimal treatments you need to understand what’s going on in a cancer, so what are the mechanisms that underlie cancer development and what keeps cancer growing and spreading, and this understanding can only be generated by basic cancer research. It is therefore very important to have a link between basic cancer research and clinical application in an oncology hospital. In my opinion, such a collaboration is truly essential to advance clinical care for cancer patients.
The LIH, in collaboration with other leading institutes in Luxembourg, is about to launch the ‘National Center of Translational Cancer Research’, to which you will contribute as part of the Scientific Advisory Board. You are leading the ‘National Center for Tumour Diseases’, a similar Precision Oncology programme in Germany – in your experience, how do these programmes impact cancer research and patient care?
In Germany, we have started to build programmes and institutions that have the clear mission to provide a better link between cancer research and hospitals to ensure that knowledge that is being generated in a cancer laboratory is translated into clinical applications. Of course, this does not always work, with many insights from basic research unable to immediately benefit patients. This is why I believe that we need dedicated or specific programmes that have as mission to provide a link between basic science and clinical medicine, with dedicated physicians and researchers and the so-called physician scientists. What you are trying to build here, what you are building, I think it is a fantastic infrastructure and a fantastic endeavour that will close that gap between basic cancer research and clinical application, and improve the future of cancer medicine.