Fighting Drug-Resistant Cancer, in Boston

Just call it a postmodern arms race. It’s common knowledge that cancer drugs have been evolving in leaps and bounds over the past 20 or 30 years—they’re now way more effective, and way less damaging to humans than they used to be. Meanwhile, though, the cells within the very cancers themselves have been evolving along, and at a much more rapid pace. Tumor cells can reproduce at a much faster rate than researchers in a lab, and so, as quickly as scientists develop an effective new drug, the tumor cells are busily trying to find a workaround.

It’s easy to think of germs or viruses as resistant to drugs, but, of course, cancers can acquire resistance, too. Fortunately, that resistance can’t travel from person to person—there aren’t really “strains” of cancer—but even so, the problem costs the health care industry millions of dollars a year, and it goes without saying that for patients, having drug-resistant cancer is miserable.

This is all part of the reason why the Gerstner Family Foundation made a $10 million gift to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to focus explicitly on battling treatment resistance in cancer.

The approach is two-pronged. First, Broad Institute researchers will use genome-editing technology to locate the mechanisms driving drug resistance in cancer cells. At the same time, these researchers will work with researchers at Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer to undertake the largest known study of tumors, both pre-treatment and after acquiring drug resistance. The genome sequences of these tumors will be compared to each other, and researchers will hopefully be able to identify the DNA mutations causing the resistance.

"Human cancers are constantly evolving in ways that evade even the best of our innovative new drugs," said Dana-Farber Cancer Institute president and CEO Edward J. Benz, Jr. "For patients to get the maximum benefit from these exciting agents, we need to devise ways to defeat this resistance."