UW-Oncoplex: Ushering in Precision Medicine

Medical technologists Christina Smith, B.S. ’84 (standing), and Karen Koehler, members of the Department of Laboratory Medicine, are part of the team that uses the UW-OncoPlex tool.
Photo credit: Colin Pritchard, Ph.D. ’05, M.D. ’07, Res. ’10

Precision medicine, sometimes called personalized medicine, is the Holy Grail of medical care. With UW-OncoPlex, patients at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) are getting a glimpse of the future of healthcare.

Colin Pritchard, Ph.D. ’05, M.D. ’07, Res. ’10, offers the example of an advanced-stage lung cancer patient seen at the SCCA. About a year ago, his tumor was deep- sequenced with UW OncoPlex. When the tool uncovered a mutation in the patient’s ALK gene, physicians then chose a therapy that targeted that gene’s activity. After receiving precisely the treatment he needed, the patient is doing well.

“There are many examples like that one,” says Pritchard, a UW assistant professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and associate director of the Genetics and Solid Tumors Laboratory.

Based on technologies pioneered by UW Medicine faculty Tomas Walsh, Ph.D., and Mary-Claire King, Ph.D., UW-OncoPlex is a DNA sequencing tool that helps physicians apply precision medicine — medicine focused on a specific patient — in treating advanced cancer. Thus far, Pritchard and Walsh have tested more than 20 types of cancer, most commonly using the tool for lung, colon and breast cancers, as well as melanoma, sarcoma and leukemia.

The tool has two great assets in pinpointing genetic contributors to cancer: accuracy and cost.

“The accuracy of the results in the genes analyzed is generally…much better than whole-genome techniques,” says Pritchard, noting that UW-OncoPlex is focused and digs deep into genetic information. It’s also less expensive — doing genetic analysis on a tumor totals approximately one-tenth the cost of analyzing a patient’s entire genome.

Testing for genetic information is one step; helping physicians translate genetic information is another. Pritchard and Walsh and their colleagues make frequent presentations to providers on cancer’s front lines, including SCCA oncologists, oncology nurses and genetic counselors. What’s more, the test isn’t limited to Seattle-area patients. It can be ordered by physicians around the nation — even internationally.

What’s next for UW-OncoPlex? “The test was designed with flexibility in mind,” says Pritchard. As more cancer-related genes are discovered, the tool will incorporate them. And in the not-too-distant future, the tool may be used to take on diseases other than cancer.

“We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries from physicians interested in using the test to look for inherited mutations rather than tumor mutations,” says Pritchard, “and we’re working on validating the assay for this purpose.”

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