New program tests which medicine will work best on a tumor

When you're diagnosed with a cancerous tumor, chemotherapy is often the first line of defense, but there's a new way to find out which medicine would work best for each individual patient and all it requires is taking a test.

When a doctor told Elissa Reynolds she had advanced colon cancer in the fall of 2017, the Buford marketing manager couldn't believe it.

"I was only 34 at the time, so, I thought, ‘this can't be happening to me.’ Colon cancer, that's an old people disease,” Reynolds said.

Within a week and a half, she had begun chemotherapy, hoping to shrink the tumor in her colon and two more in her liver. That's when she met cancer surgeon Ken Dixon.

"I’ve been taking care of cancer patients for nearly 40 years, and I’ve lost too many," Dr. Dixon said.

Dixon has become increasingly focused on a new approach to how we treat cancer, known as "functional precision medicine." This means taking tumor tissue collected during biopsies or surgeries and keeping it alive so it can be tested to find out which cancer drugs will be most effective for the patient.

"The question now is 'what the heck are you talking about? Saving my tumor and keeping it alive?' That sound nonsensical. But if you really think about it, it makes absolute sense,” Dixon said.

Reynolds' chemo drug was shrinking two of her tumors, but only in her liver.

"The other tumor was still too big to remove, too dangerous to take out,” she said.

So, Dixon removed the smaller liver tumor and sent part of the tissue to pathology to be studied. Then, his company Specicare, shipped the rest, stored in solution to keep it alive for up to four days to a lab then it was tested against about 130 different cancer medications, some standard, some not.

"Rather than taking a shot in the dark, of ‘let's try this medicine. No, let's try this medicine. You know it works on her tumor, why would you not use that?" Dixon said.

"It was like a breath of hope that there were more options,” said Reynolds.

Reynolds’ living tumor was vulnerable to about 20 drugs, some standard, some not.

“Finding out that there is a range of medicines I am sensitive to, finding that out, is, is, finding out that I have a future, really,” she said.

Her oncologist kept Reynolds on standard colon cancer drug, but added another used for advanced, or metastatic, breast cancer.

"Her main concern is whether we can get this paid for by insurance because these are not standard medicines for colon cancer, so there is some pushback from insurance,” Reynolds said.

To try get around that, they're looking at clinical trials, or studies of experimental drugs, offered at no charge to participants.

"But they're trials specifically, based on the drugs that we know are going to work," she said. 

Reynolds says the tumor in her liver is shrinking.

"It's not shrinking quickly, but it's shrinking and that's good. We're going in the right direction,” she said.

She says it gives her hope.

"It's life changing.”

This is a new industry and right now this testing is not covered by insurance. The price is based on how many different drugs are tested against the patient's tumor tissue.