It took only a few stray cancer cells to direct Dr. Amanda Paulovich's research path.
While training in both clinical medicine and basic science, she treated oncology patients who appeared cured after treatment, but the best of scans couldn't detect a small number of cells that sometimes escaped the original cancer site. Those renegade cells went on to become hard-to-stop metastatic cancer.
"The reality of how difficult it is to treat a tumor once even a few cells have escaped the primary site was quite overwhelming," she said. "It made me realize how so few cells could make our treatments largely ineffective."
The quest for Paulovich became — and remains — to find miniscule molecules in the body in order to diagnose and eliminate cancer long before it becomes a tumor or errant cells.
"The idea behind personalized medicine is figuring out what's the ideal intervention for you, which will cut costs and improve our treatments — that's the ultimate goal."
Paulovich and her colleagues recently took a big step forward in overcoming limiting factors validating biomarkers for clinical use: a lack of standardized technologies and methodologies.
A national scientific network that includes Paulovich's team may have solved that dilemma by creating a new method for detecting and quantifying protein biomarkers in body fluids.
This novel approach holds the promise of ensuring that only the strongest biomarker candidates will advance down the development pipeline.
"If the technologies meet their potential, we'll stop treating patients based on population averages," Paulovich said. "The idea behind personalized medicine is figuring out what's the ideal intervention for you, which will cut costs and improve our treatments — that's the ultimate goal. If we can make it work, it will have a giant impact."
There are already examples of this approach in lung and breast cancer treatments. "It's just a matter of making what are now the exceptions, the rule," she said. "I think we're only a decade or two away."