Cancer treatment is incredibly draining — physically, emotionally, and financially. Any way medical professionals can make the ordeal more bearable would be welcome; in which case researchers from the University of Iowa College of Dentistry have teamed up with a private company to try and personalize cancer care a bit more.

The team developed computer simulations that can help predict how a certain patient will respond to a drug treatment. The power of the simulation lies in the creation of "virtual tumors" based on a patient's own cancer cells and specific genes. "Virtual tumors can be used to test the ability of drug treatments to treat cancer cell-induced immunosuppression on the host," said Kim Alan Brogden, director of the Dows Institute for Dental Research at the UI College of dentistry, in a statement. "Thus, we are better able to zero in on what type of treatment would work best for that individual's cancer."

After that, researchers replicate the process in the lab by actually growing live cancer cells with the same genetic makeup. They test the immunotherapy on the cells and monitor the response — if it's the same, then they have identified a treatment that will be effective for that particular patient.

"In our current studies, we are seeing a 85 percent to 86 percent correlation of our matches," Brogden said.

He explained that the goal of the program is to develop a very patient-specific workflow; then, the process could be used early after a cancer diagnosis to help doctors identify which cancer treatments would be effective. He said the technology is timely, because some kinds of cancers have been protecting themselves by overriding a patient's immune checkpoints, and the drugs to combat this issue have a response rate of less than 20.5 percent.

"Therefore, the success of the current therapy depends on a precision medicine approach: finding the right treatment for the right patient within a reasonable time," he explained.

The UI researchers have been collaborating with Cellworks Group, Inc., a company working on the development of virtual tumors for personalized cancer treatment. The simulation and lab models have also allowed for the screening of combination treatments, which could involve more than one immunotherapeutic agent or a combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy. The team said they hope their work can contribute to a personalized approach to cancer that will cut costs, save treatment time, and improve long-term diagnoses for patients.

Source: Brogden K et al. Making Cancer Care personal. The American Hematological Society 57th Annual Meeting and Exposition. 2015.