At UC San Diego Health, personalized medicine means a treatment just for you

Most medicine is based on the expected response from the average person. Personalized medicine, also known as precision medicine, is about tailoring treatment to each individual. This means more precisely diagnosing an individual’s disease and more precisely matching an effective treatment for it.

If you’re a cancer patient, personalized medicine may be achieved by gathering information about you and your cancer, your genes, your immune system, and the genes and molecular characterization of your tumor, for example. Your treatment plan is then fine-tuned to your cancer.

It takes sophisticated technologies and highly specialized medical expertise to collect and interpret genetic, molecular, and immunological information. This is why the most promising advances in cancer care are happening at NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers and university-based medical centers, such as UC San Diego Health and its Precision Immunotherapy Clinic.

We asked Dr. Ezra Cohen how he and his and colleagues at UC San Diego Health’s Precision Immunotherapy Clinic are unleashing the immune system to fight cancer.

What is immunotherapy, and is it a new frontier for cancer treatment? “Essentially, immunotherapy is harnessing a person’s own immune system to fight, and hopefully eliminate, their cancer. The concept of immunotherapy is not new. It has existed for more than 100 years. What is new is our more sophisticated understanding of the immune system. We now know what turns it on and what turns it off. We know how the immune system goes from recognition to forming a response, and we have the ability to track that. With this knowledge and technology, we are at a point now where we can develop cell therapies, vaccines, and drugs that harness the immune system. Yes, this is the future for oncology. Every oncologist today has at least one patient in their practice who would not be alive with conventional treatment. I have patients who had recurrent or metastatic disease five or six years ago and they are now disease-free. A decade ago, the treatments we gave them did not exist and these patients would not be alive.”

What makes the Precision Immunotherapy Clinic special? “Everyone’s cancer is different. Under the microscope they can look identical, but when we go to the molecular level, no two cancers are exactly the same. And no two immune systems are the same. We all respond differently to cancer and treatments, so it does not make sense to treat two patients the exact same way. At the Precision Immunotherapy Clinic, we evaluate each individual’s cancer at a molecular level and analyze their immune system to devise the best possible therapies and get them into the right clinical trials. This level of sophistication is not possible at most hospitals.”

Does each case require extensive collaboration? “Most definitely. Each case is assigned a coordinated team of physicians and scientists. After evaluating a patient’s data, clinical information, and personal desires, we hold a Precision Immunotherapy Case Conference to discuss and determine the best therapeutic options. Many times, we can identify a clinical trial that would be a good option. The patient is also a key part of our collaborative process. Most of our patients have done a lot of research on their cancer. They tend to be proactive and eager to pursue the options we find for them.”

Dr. Ezra Cohen
Dr. Ezra Cohen
UC San Diego Health’s
Precision Immunotherapy Clinic
UC San Diego Health’s Precision Immunotherapy Clinic

Is immunotherapy an option for people with advanced cancer? “Yes, it is. My colleagues and I already have patients who are alive and cancer-free who would not be ten years ago. Roughly, about 15 percent of patients with advanced disease and solid tumors are responding to immunotherapy to a remarkable degree. At the Precision Immunotherapy Clinic, we are dedicated to taking that number higher by applying a case-by-case approach to understanding the individual’s cancer and immune response, and tailoring therapies accordingly.”

Oncologist and internationally renowned cancer researcher, Ezra Cohen, MD, is the director of the UC San Diego Health’s Precision Immunotherapy Clinic, which offers the most promising investigational immunotherapy treatments. To learn more, visit health.ucsd.edu/immunotherapy, or contact the clinic at info@health.ucsd.edu or 858.822.6100.