Genomes to Health: The Path to Better and More Personal Cancer Care


We now recognize that most cancers are not one disease, rather they appear to be many complex diseases with distinct causes. Even so, doctors make decisions every day (about 700,000 decisions every year in the U.S. alone) about how to treat individual patients’ cancers without the benefit of tools that could define important underlying characteristics of each and every unique tumor. Much-needed guidance is lacking for choosing among treatment options for the individual.

Genomic information and tools that have emerged in the past decade could change this—starting today. At Duke, we have been wrestling with how to translate genomic science and information into something that can be made practical and accessible to patients and their physicians.

The key to making these novel findings from genomic medicine a part of standard medical practice is to show that they actually improve patient care and disease outcomes. Genome-guided clinical trials and research from a new cancer registry led by the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy are moving genomics into clinical care for breast, prostate and lung cancer. We plan to expand our efforts in other cancers, as well as other common diseases such as type 2 diabetes. 

Through participation in these trials or the registry, some patients and their physicians at Duke and in an emerging genomic trials network are now getting early access to this kind of genomic information while they help build the future of medicine, which we believe can be both better and more cost effective.

We call this initiative “Genomes to Health”, and here’s how it works. A person with breast, lung or prostate cancer comes to Duke or one of our network partners around the country for evaluation and consents to having a biopsy for genomic and genetic analysis. Based on the characteristics of the patient’s disease, and the results of their biopsy analyses, several options are possible including:

  • The patient is deemed eligible for one of the ongoing genome-guided clinical studies in breast, lung and prostate cancer and is offered the opportunity to enroll in the trial.
  • The patient is not eligible for one of the Duke trials but may be eligible for an ongoing trial outside of Duke and is referred to that study.
  • If the patient is not eligible for an ongoing clinical trial, either at Duke or at an outside institution, the patient can be entered into a registry study in which their clinical outcomes will be followed for future study and possibly future eligibility in a genome-guided study.

For more about ongoing genome-guided clinical trials and the registry, visit

This initiative at Duke is just one of many such efforts around the country to use robust health databases and informatics tools to combine clinical and genetic information to support higher quality, more personalized care.  Innovations like these are part of the answer to containing costs while improving outcomes and the patient experience.

Geoff Ginsburg is director of the Center for Genomic Medicine at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.

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