An innovative new form of cancer treatment has kept the Yale Cancer Center at the forefront of cancer research.

Since mid-2010, doctors at the Smilow Cancer Hospital have used a process called tumor-profiling to test patients’ cancerous cells for specific mutations in critical genes within the coding sections of their DNA. If present, these mutations make the malignant cells vulnerable to targeted cancer drugs, a type of chemotherapy that can battle cancer without the severe side effects usually associated with the treatment. The research has allowed better outcomes in treating certain common types of cancer, according to physicians at the Yale School of Medicine.

“I’ve seen patients brought back from the brink of death,” said Jeffrey Sklar MED ’78, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the medical school.

Sklar, director of the Yale Tumor Profiling Lab, said the great benefit of target-specific drugs is that they do not effect all rapidly growing cells, only the cancerous ones. Unlike conventional anti-metabolite chemotherapy drugs, these targeted drugs do not cause hair loss, bone marrow suppression or gastrointestinal discomfort in patients, he added.

The Yale Cancer Center has treated approximately 200 patients with this method, with success in lung, colon and breast cancer as well as melanoma, Yale Cancer Center Director Thomas Lynch ’82 MED ’86 said. Doctors have identified around 70 specific genes in tumors that allow for targeted treatments, Sklar said.

One such gene, HER2, is present in all aggressive forms of breast cancer but is only amplified in some tumors. Lynch said the amplified HER2 gene enables targeted treatment for breast cancer patients with a 50 percent lower mortality rate after surgery and treatment.

“What [Sklar] is doing is of huge significance,” Lynch said. “It’s the future of cancer therapy.”

Lynch added that only about five or six other cancer centers in the country are providing patients with tumor-profiling treatment.

Still, the 70 targeted cancer drugs currently available are only effective when a specific mutation is present, Sklar said, so patients whose tumors do not display the key mutations will not see any benefit from targeted drugs. He added that targeted drugs and tumor-profiling procedures are “very expensive.”

Eventually, Sklar said, the number of targeted drugs will increase.

“We don’t have targeted drugs for all cancers, but that would be the ultimate goal,” Sklar said.

Pharmacology Department Chair Joseph Schlessinger, who declined to comment for this article, is known for having made discoveries leading to a new class of targeted anti-cancer drugs, called multi-kinase inhibitors. He has founded three biotech companies to develop and produce these drugs.