Researchers say they’ve identified 14 genes that may help determine whether a cancer treatment could help a patient.
The researchers also say the findings suggest it could be possible to help people avoid unnecessary cancer treatments that won’t likely benefit them.
“The history of cancer treatment is filled with overreaction,” said principal investigator Gary Karpen, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.
“It is part of the ethics of cancer treatment to err on the side of overtreatment, but these treatments have serious side effects associated with them. For some people, it may be causing more trouble than if the growth was left untreated,” Karpen said in a Berkeley Lab release.
However, there has not been a reliable way to determine which early stage cancer patients will respond to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, according to study author Weiguo Zhang. He’s a project scientist at Berkeley Lab.
“For certain types of early stage lung cancer patients, there are estimates that adjuvant chemotherapy improves five-year survival only about 10 percent, on average, which is not great considering the collateral damage caused by this treatment (chemotherapy),” Zhang explained.
“Even for early stage cancer patients, such as lung cancers, adjuvant chemotherapy and radiotherapy are routinely used in treatment, but overtreatment is a major challenge,” Zhang said.
The researchers found 14 genes that consistently “over-express” in a large number of cancers. When a gene “expresses,” it’s essentially releasing a set of instructions, according to the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute.
The study team then created a scoring system based on the degree of over-expression. A higher score meant more over-expression in those genes.
For several types of major cancers, the higher the score, the worse the prognosis for patients. But “another finding — one that is counterintuitive — is that high expression of these genes is also related to more effective chemotherapy and radiation therapy,” said Karpen. The scores could then lead to predicting patient response to specific cancer treatments, according to the study team.
A genetic marker could prove valuable when deciding whether to use a particular therapy or not, but translating these study findings into clinical practice will require more research, the study authors noted.
The study was published Aug. 31 in the journal Nature Communications.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about cancer treatment.