Katya Lezin: My cancer cells are growing nicely – in a Petri dish
Monday, Feb. 10, 2014

Katya Lezin: My cancer cells are growing nicely – in a Petri dish

Sean McDonald, 53, started his tumor profiling company, Precision Therapeutics, to help guide physicians and patients with treatment options.

This is an installment in correspondent Katya Lezin’s “Cancer journey,” in which she chronicles her battle with ovarian cancer.

“Your cancer cells are growing nicely,” Dr. Robert Naumann, my gynecological oncologist, told me at last month’s appointment.

Ordinarily, this would not be encouraging news.

It is disconcerting enough to be told you have cancer, let alone that the cells are growing nicely. But Naumann was referring to cancer cells growing outside my body, in a research laboratory at Precision Therapeutics.

When I had my splenectomy just before Thanksgiving, a portion of my tumor (where my ovarian cancer had recurred on my spleen) was sent to Precision Therapeutics, a company that specializes in genetic profiling of an individual’s cancer cells to offer customized therapeutic responses.

“We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift in how we think about disease,” says Sean McDonald, founder and CEO of Precision Therapeutics. “We’re moving to a time where we’ll characterize cancer much more by its behavior and what it responds to rather than the part of the body where it is found.”

McDonald started his company, based in Philadelphia, 10 years ago, following his mother’s battle with breast cancer.

“Her treatment felt so random,” McDonald says. “It seemed as if they were throwing darts at her and seeing what stuck.”

He decided to do something about it, realizing that genetic profiling was “the wave of the future in how we treat cancer.”

McDonald sold his health-care robotics company and started Precision Therapeutics, knowing it would take years to build the technology and conduct the research to prove its efficacy.

“The tumor contains information,” McDonald says. “Why would you throw away the chance to learn what its characteristics are and what can kill it?”

I agree, which is why I asked Naumann to send my tumor to be analyzed.

Once it arrived at their laboratories, the researchers at Precision Therapeutics grew it, then proceeded to test it against the chemotherapy regimens Naumann was proposing for me.

“By testing different doses of treatment in varying combinations, we are able to interpret the data and determine which drugs will be the most effective for that particular type of tumor,” McDonald said.

The process, covered by some insurers but often a cost each patient must cover, runs approximately $500 per drug tested, averaging $3,500 per patient.

McDonald is quick to point out that it is an up-front cost that will save both insurers and patients substantially more in the long run. Through genetic testing, he says, “we are able to find the most effective therapy earlier.”

The good news for me is that my most recent CA-125 reading was an all-time low of 13, indicating that there are no longer cancer cells present in my body.

To say we were relieved would be an understatement.

Ovarian cancer is notorious for its rate of recurrence, however, so my cancer-free card likely is a temporary one. If it does come back, I will face my treatment with the confidence and assurance that comes with knowing the treatment was scientifically tested and shown to be the most effective for my particular tumor, taking my genetic predisposition and everything else about me that affects the cancer cells’ behavior into account.

Meanwhile, I will enjoy the reprieve as long as I can.

And I will enjoy the fact that, for the time being, the only place my cancer cells are growing is in a Petri dish.

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Do you have a story idea for Katya? Email her at bowserwoof@mindspring.com.

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