CANCER could become a manageable disease rather than a death sentence, thanks to a revolutionary treatment which will be available within five years.
All patients will soon have their tumours' DNA sequenced, enabling medics to ensure they give exactly the right drugs to keep the disease at bay.
Doctors hope it will be a major step towards transforming cancer from a terminal into a chronic disease.
The technique could enable terminally ill patients – who today can only expect to see out a few months – to live for a decade or more in relatively good health, according to specialists at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London.
The breakthrough was welcomed by leading Irish cancer specialist Professor John Crown, who said he was hopeful this area of research would bring improvements in cancer treatment. But the St Vincent's Hospital specialist cautioned that the timeline was a little over optimistic.
"We cannot be specific about what cancer research will bring," he told the Irish Independent. However, he said that genetic profiling of tumours had already been successful and he was hopeful of more improvement in the future.
Genetic profiling of tumours is already used to a certain extent, although current methods only look for a few genes.
For example, women with advanced breast cancer are tested to see if their tumours have a particular variant of the HER2
gene, which causes a fifth of cases. Those who have it are given Herceptin, but the remainder are not because it would do them no good.
Professor Alan Ashworth, chief executive of the ICR, said: "We should be aspiring to cure cancer, but for people with advanced disease, it will be a question of managing them better so they survive for much longer – for many years.
"Cancer often appears in people who are old, and if we can keep them alive long enough for them to die of something else, then we are turning cancer into a chronic disease."
Professor Ashworth said the understanding of how different cancers are caused by different genetic triggers is now building "incredibly rapidly".
For example, Vemurafenib is prescribed to half of advanced melanoma patients, who have the BRAF V600 gene mutation.
The pill has been shown to increase survival, on average, from 9.6 to 13.2 months, and help patients feel much more energetic.
Prof Ashworth said such cases were the exception. But he said: "We would hope that they will become the norm."
He added: "None of this is science fiction. One would think in five or 10 years this will be absolutely routine practice for every cancer patient, and that's what we're aiming to bring about."
Prof Ashworth said he thought the method would have "a big impact" on a range of cancers within a decade, but added: "Over the next two to three years, there will be individual patients who receive substantial benefits from these technologies."