A Targeted Approach: New Techniques for Diagnosing and Treating Cancer

According to the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering assistant professor Adam Melvin, chemotherapy treatment today often misses the mark. Melvin deduced as much after shadowing an oncologist during his postdoc work at the University of North Carolina. After observing a physician specializing in the treatment of multiple myeloma, one of the things that struck Melvin was the delta between treatment success and failure. The other problem he noticed was patients’ increasing resistance to single drug treatments.

One of the limitations in contemporary cancer diagnosis today is doctors’ broad approach to treatment. Physicians have only limited information to make decisions about individual patients “Biopsies capture a fairly small amount of cell tissue inadequate to get a clear picture of the true dynamics of each individual cancer cell,” says Melvin. “Cancer lives in a very heterogeneous environment. There are healthy cells, benign cells and cancerous cells to varying degrees.”

People undergo the treatment regime with their fingers crossed, not knowing if they will be helped or harmed. He likens it to eliminating the grading curve in a class of 150 students—no matter how well or poor a student’s performance, everyone earns the same grade. We treat cancer much in the same way. It’s a one size fits all approach.

However, according to Melvin, no two cancers are exactly alike because no two people share the same genetic profile. Today, common medical practice calls for a biopsy of the tumor. In much more sophisticated diagnostics, doctors may opt to map the genome of the cancer to understand the minute differences in the DNA of the cancer cells compared to a patient’s healthy cells. The results lead to a tailored treatment that targets the tumor’s mutations. This method of diagnosis and treatment is often very effective, but also costly and time consuming.

Melvin’s diagnostic method takes a much simpler approach. Using a microfluidic chip and man-made biosensors, Melvin measures specific enzymatic activity in individual cancer cells. He theorizes, that based upon the enzymatic responses, we can pinpoint treatment that will eradicate the cancer but minimize the side effects of chemotherapy drugs. “Basically we can predict how an individual’s cancer will respond to treatment before administering the drug or drugs,” says Melvin.

While still a long way off from commercialization, Melvin’s research holds great promise in providing personalized cancer treatment tailored to the particular characteristics of each patient’s cancer.

In addition to personalized cancer care, his research is applicable in early stage drug testing. Melvin says, “By testing drugs at the cellular level, we can determine how cells will respond to the new drug, if at all.” This technology could allow pharmaceutical companies to rapidly advance to Stage III drug testing by quickly eliminating treatments that will not perform in clinic trials.

Dr. Adam Melvin is an assistant professor in the Cain Department of Chemical Engineering at LSU. He earned dual undergraduate degrees in chemical engineering and chemistry from the University of Arizona and his master’s and Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.