Precision Medicine: Center Will Mean New Tools for Cancer Prevention, Diagnosis

Jon Parham

Dr. McKelvey

The planned UAMS Center for Innovation in Precision Medicine could put cancer patients in Arkansas and beyond closer to new diagnostic tools and expertise for assessing risk and achieving even earlier diagnoses.

The clinicians seeing patients as well as the researchers developing new medicines or diagnostic tools are talking and sketching ideas for taking the center from concept to execution. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s “when,” said Jennifer Hunt, M.D., chair of the Department of Pathology in the UAMS College of Medicine.

The important early component for the center will be genetic testing equipment and other instruments for analyzing or documenting a patient’s genetic blueprint. Planners are seeking space on the UAMS campus for the lab equipment since the existing clinical lab is at maximum capacity.

“The center and its lab will mean we can deliver really cutting-edge care in the state without sending lab work or patients out of Arkansas,” Hunt said. “We’re here and would be able to take the results directly to the clinicians caring for the patients.”

The lab would be a centralized campuswide resource. Each department, institute or program could recruit or assign faculty to the project.

Kent McKelvey, M.D., a founding member of the Division of Genetics in the UAMS College of Medicine, is one clinician researcher excited about the forces coming together at UAMS. As director of Cancer Genetics Services in the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, he has been helping patients make treatment decisions using genetic information for several years. But, he said, the tools are getting better so the potential at UAMS is even greater.

“This center will mean we can systematically apply the latest understandings in molecular genomics to the clinical care of our patients,” he said. “While our cancer genetics clinic has always been a resource for personalized medicine for those who knew about it or were referred, we will soon have resources and impetus to broaden our efforts in cancer prevention and be more precise in the molecular diagnosis and treatment of some cancers when they occur.”

Dr. McKelveyWith more precise lab testing available through the center, results can be focused down to the individual patient. Test results could point clinicians to a specific treatment or series of treatments that will work best for that particular patient based on his or her genetic makeup.

Genetic tests can already identify risk for various types of cancer. As understanding of the human genome increases, more advanced testing promises to find new targets for treatment or disease prevention.

“We are now able to test hundreds of genes on a clinical basis and these genes represent more than 50 well-described cancer syndromes — all with implications for care,” said McKelvey, who in 2009 became the inaugural recipient of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Chair in Clinical Genetics at UAMS. “In some cases we literally have the whole genome at our fingertips.”

In planning for the lab construction, both Hunt and McKelvey expressed optimism. “This is just the beginning of the genomics era in precision medicine and UAMS is at that interface of technology and patient care, so momentum is really picking up,” McKelvey said.