Cancer. It’s a word that rarely needs much of an introduction, a two-syllable brick that seems to spell out a grim storyline as soon as it’s spoken. We’re all acquainted with it, we’ve most likely experienced a version of it, and we’re all waiting for the day that we can be done with it. It’s one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and the National Cancer Institute estimates that more than 500,000 Americans died from it in 2016.
But if there could be a silver lining to cancer, it’s this: The institute has also found that the overall cancer death rate has dropped in the U.S. since the 1990s. In studies done on adults from 2004 to 2013, the rate decreased 1.8 percent per year for men and 1.4 percent per year for women. This has to do, in part, with screenings and research that have educated doctors and patients alike with increasingly advanced ways to spot and treat a diagnosis. While we are not in the clear, the National Cancer Institute also suggests that the number of people who receive a cancer diagnosis but live beyond it will increase by an estimated 19 million by 2024.
Given the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis, the way it can uproot the life and lives around it, it isn’t always easy to find the good in it. On an intimate scale, good can be found in the love that’s forged in cancer’s midst. And on a scientific scale, good can be seen in the breakthroughs that are found in its wake. Loxo Oncology is the type of silver-lining spark battling cancer’s dark shadow, a company devoted to understanding its many makeups on a genetic level. As its groundbreaking studies, tests, and medicines seek to pinpoint and treat cancer’s malleable forms, it is working to slowly but surely extend the silver lining over the imposing nature of cancer.
Test it out
Cancer doesn’t need much of an introduction, but the mission behind Loxo Oncology does. The company, which is headquartered in Connecticut and founded in 2013, uses genetic testing to seek out and treat specific aspects of cancer cells.
When an individual is diagnosed with cancer, testing can show that the cancer was caused by one shift in his or her DNA. The single change is called an “oncogenic driver.” Loxo Oncology believes that people with oncogenic drivers in their DNA should have a personalized medicine in their treatments that seek out this one error. Therefore, the drugs Loxo Oncology creates either treats or prevents oncogenic drivers from occurring in patients. Its hope is that soon the company will have a pipeline of these highly precise medicines to fight against a range of certain cancers, ultimately increasing those who live beyond a diagnosis.
So what are these precise medicines exactly? Without going into great detail — which would force us to minutely discuss the proteins and inhibitors involved in the tumors that make up the cancers, which you probably want to skip — Loxo Oncology’s precise medicines are different than the traditional routes of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Whereas traditional routes may cause toxicity in the body before reaching their maximum effect, targeted medications do the opposite. Loxo Oncology believes that each tumor is like a fingerprint, specific to the individual, and therefore its medications seek out and inhibit the exact genes and proteins that make the tumors grow. This approach has fewer side effects than the traditional counterparts and can increase the clinical benefits to patients.
In order for a clinical program to get underway, a genetic alteration must be deemed an oncogenic driver. The so-called drivers are given the most attention, and once they are determined, the team then asks if selective medicines can be developed to have the highest rate of potential in fighting the growth. Finally, the team goes about identifying patients who may have the alteration through a series of genetic testing.
“In the past ten years alone, we’ve seen an incredible shift in cancer care – one that uses information about a person’s genes and proteins to better diagnose and treat,” its website states. “Precision medicine has led us to the understanding that many types of cancer need to be treated at the genetic level – treatment chosen based on a patient’s specific genetic alteration.”
Loxo Oncology’s programs and pipeline represent a future response to cancer. Genetic testing is helping to shape how scientists and doctors think about and respond to cancerous cells, which will only help in finding more opportunities to treat it. So far, Loxo Oncology is studying the genetic events of tumors that comprise a range of alarming cancers, including breast cancer, lung cancer, thyroid cancer, and melanoma.
While its selective medicines and inhibitors are still in a nascent stage, as the need to figure out which gene mutations are alarming and which are not is a constant struggle, Loxo Oncology’s pipeline may one day be a primary treatment that’s sought out by physicians and their patients.
See what the future holds
“Cancer is a genetic disease at its core,” Robert Weinberg, an M.I.T. cancer biologist, told the New Yorker in an article published last fall. That’s Loxo Oncology’s stance as well, a view that takes in the whole of the body’s many organisms and sees how they can be transformed by the smallest shifts in our DNA.
It’s a vantage point that considers the trees rather than the forest — or perhaps even the leaves on the trees in the forest — in the understanding that such specifics can maybe lead to a greater understanding of this treacherous disease. And once it’s understood, perhaps it can be beaten.
For now, the team behind Loxo Oncology is ever studying and testing, performing clinical trials, and seeing what occurs. The future, as is the case with any diagnosis and surrounding medicine, is open.