At Cancer Research UK we’re very optimistic about this drug, which our scientists played a key role in developing. It’s a new type of cancer drug, called a PARP inhibitor, which targets individual errors in certain genes – BRCA genes – that often go wrong in cancer.
The two new trials, both published in The Lancet, look at the effectiveness of olaparib in treating women who inherited a faulty copy of one of their BRCA genes and subsequently developed ovarian or breast cancer. They build on the promise shown in earlier trials, although the drug still needs to be studied further before it can – hopefully – make it into routine use.
But it’s a mistake to think that olaparib is a drug ‘for’ breast or ovarian cancer.
Instead, what this is is a drug ‘for’ cancers with certain genetic mutations. This is a very different way of looking at things. The researchers who led the ovarian cancer trial, Dr William Audeh, summed it up like this:
“Until now, treatments for cancer have been selected based upon where in the body the cancer originated. These two studies suggest that it is the underlying genetic weakness of a cancer, not the organ of origin, that is the key to selecting effective therapy.”
In essence, this is a glimpse of the future of cancer treatment – patients are grouped or ‘stratified’ according to their tumour’s DNA, not the part of the body in which it grows.
It’s an important concept, and it has taken many years of painstaking research to uncover the knowledge to even begin to think in this direction. Hopefully, with more research and investment, we can start to make this concept a reality for cancer patients, and save even more lives.
Tutt, A. et al (2010). Oral poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase inhibitor olaparib in patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations and advanced breast cancer: a proof-of-concept trial The Lancet, 376 (9737), 235-244 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60892-6
Audeh, M.et al (2010). Oral poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase inhibitor olaparib in patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations and recurrent ovarian cancer: a proof-of-concept trial The Lancet, 376 (9737), 245-251 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60893-8