When Deborah Fletcher was being treated for Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer, she heard about a new type of diagnostic called the liquid biopsy. This method tracks her specific cancer as it changes rather than using boilerplate treatment recommendations that are based on the average patient. “To say that you are going to fall into a statistic and that things are going to work out—I felt very uncomfortable with that,” Ms. Fletcher told Antonio Regalado of MIT Technology Review.
Ms. Fletcher sought out Dr. Massimo Cristofanilli M.D., an oncologist at Thomas Jefferson University and Director of the Jefferson Breast Care Center who was using liquid biopsies to help create a more personalized approach to treatment. The test let Dr. Cristofanilli track Ms. Fletcher’s disease and found that the cancer had changed since her last biopsy, suggesting that she might respond to a different treatment. A few months later a second liquid biopsy test indicated that her original medication might once again be able to control the cancer and they made the switch again, crafting her care to precisely fit the unique profile of her cancer. Indeed, the cancer responded immediately.
Although this diagnostic blood test could save women from taking unnecessary and expensive medications, research has yet to prove that these tests will ultimately help doctors prolong the life of a cancer patient. Dr. Cristofanilli told MIT Technology Review, “We want to interrupt some treatments, start others, and keep up with the ever-changing biology of the disease. I think that is the future [of liquid biopsy].”