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Israeli scientists unveil ‘powerful tool’ advancing personalized cancer medicine

Tel Aviv University team is building an index on the level of chromosomal imbalance in various cancerous cells to guide drug decisions for patients

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative: a octor looking image of leukaemia cells (kukhunthod via iStock Getty Images)
Illustrative: a octor looking image of leukaemia cells (kukhunthod via iStock Getty Images)

Israeli scientists are claiming a breakthrough that could help doctors make more personalized decisions when choosing cancer drugs for their patients.

It is well known that many, but not all, cancer cells have an abnormal number of chromosomes — a phenomenon called aneuploidy.

Dr. Uri Ben-David of Tel Aviv University and his international collaborators have completed a massive study of 1,000 cancer cells, to uncover correlations between their aneuploidy levels and how much impact different drugs have on the cells.

They say that while aneuploidy has long been observed, it hasn’t helped doctors to advance treatment. He believes that the lab research, conducted jointly with academics in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, points to the potential of aneuploidy levels guiding drug decisions.

The data was published Wednesday in the influential peer-reviewed journal Nature.

This microscope image made available by the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research in 2015 shows human colon cancer cells with the nuclei stained red. (NCI Center for Cancer Research via AP)

“We systematically characterized aneuploidy levels in these 1,000 cancer cells, and have uncovered a set of ‘vulnerabilities’ that the cells have to different drugs based on indexing their aneuploidy levels,” Ben-David told The Times of Israel.

He hopes that in the future, checks of aneuploidy levels in patients’ tumors — which are relatively simple to perform — will become routine, and doctors will deploy his ever-growing “aneuploidy index” when deciding on treatment.

“This could be a powerful tool to advance personalized cancer medicine,” he said.

Dr. Uri Ben-David of Tel Aviv University (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

Ben-David stressed that the correlations he is uncovering between aneuploidy and effectiveness of drugs have only been tested in labs, and need to be checked on humans before they are deployed en masse to guide doctors’ decisions on drugs.

In its first drug-related finding, Ben-David’s team has documented a strong correlation found between aneuploidy levels and the effectiveness of one particular set of drugs that is expected to become available soon.

Clinical tests are underway for drugs that inhibit the mitotic checkpoint — a cellular checkpoint that guides the separation of chromosomes during cell division.

Ben-David believes that aneuploidy levels are a giveaway sign of whether patients are likely to respond well to the new inhibitors.

“Until now we didn’t have any biomarkers to suggest how effective these drugs will be among different people, but now it seems we do, in the form of aneuploidy levels,” he said. “This is an important first finding from our research, that could help patients.”

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