About Molecular Fingerprinting

The Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center's Translational Research Lab will genetically "fingerprint" patients' tumors.

Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center has recently opened a new translational research laboratory that will eventually uncover the genetic codes and gene mutations from almost all of its cancer patients. Previously only a sampling of patients had their cancers analyzed in such a comprehensive fashion. Currently, all patients with metastatic adenocarcinomas that started in the lung, colon and rectum are routinely tested in the translational research lab, and all patients with leukemia are also routinely tested at Mass General. Soon more disease groups will be phased in. By embarking on such an ambitious approach, Cancer Center pathologists and oncologists hope to gather specific information about cancer properties that will lead to targeted therapies and better personalized treatments.

Scientists and researchers have already identified more than 120 genetic mutations responsible for causing cancer growth, many of which are involved in several different types of cancers. Co–directors of the translational research lab, Leif Ellisen, MD, PhD, and A. John Iafrate, MD, PhD, have equipped the lab with state-of-the-art automated technology which will make it possible to quickly genotype cancer specimens within a short period of time.

“This new and improved classification of cancers that we are doing is intended to give our oncologists more information about an individual patient’s cancer, so they can treat it in a very specific way, thereby significantly increasing the odds of success,” says Iafrate.

Several new cancer drugs that are currently available or in development are able to block some of the mutations and pathways that causes cancer cells to proliferate. By targeting cancer gene mutations with these smart drugs, doctors may be able to eradicate malignant cells without using traditional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, which have significant side effects.

The lab’s cancer genotyping initiative should also expedite the time it takes to find the right drug for the right patient. According to Ellisen, “If we are able to identify a mutation in, say, a case of lung cancer, and we know that a particular drug has been successful in treating colon cancer patients with the same mutation, then we have good reason to believe that drug will work by turning off the cancer-causing mutation in the lung cancer patient as well.”

The Mass General Cancer Center has begun genotyping of all patients with leukemia or metastatic adenocarcinomas that started in the lung, colon or rectum. Different disease groups will be phased in gradually over the coming months.

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