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The fight against cancer has grown much more personal.

By genetically profiling tumors, healthcare professionals can turn to more personalized treatments. This type of profiling allows doctors to select drugs that attack and destroy a patient’s cancer cells, while sparing non-cancerous cells.

Genetic profiling and other “precision medicine” techniques began to take hold in the early 2000s. Still, the utilization rate of precision oncology is largely unknown, making it tough to gauge the effect these approaches have on large populations.

The knowledge gap also makes it hard for healthcare payers and providers to make decisions regarding precision medicine in oncology. Additionally, the lack of information makes identifying potential healthcare disparities based on socioeconomic status, race, and gender difficult to explore.

These factors are what led a team of researchers headed by Harrisburg University Executive Director of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dr. Erik Hefti to examine the use of a specific genetic test used to select breast cancer treatments (HER2 testing) in the state of New York.

Using a major statewide healthcare database to examine HER2 testing as an adjunct clinical assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, Hefti and his team isolated the HER2 utilization rate in New York State, and disease diagnosis was a driving factor in testing utilization. The research also found that the presence of a major cancer center in an area is a potential indicator for precision oncology utilization.

The research team, in collaboration with the New York State Department of Health, completed their research in October. Their findings were published in the journal, Pharmacogenomics.

The techniques developed during this study could be applied to other states, and nationally, and could include the study of other types of cancers and beyond.

“The ultimate goal is to understand how often precision oncology testing is being used. We know it is available, but we don’t understand how often it is used,” Hefti said. “We can’t fully study the impact these treatments have without knowing how often they are used. The research could lead to better regulation and utilization of these tests.”

Precision oncology treatment drugs normally are incredibly expensive. Understanding the effect various treatments have on a large swath of patients could help to predict potential healthcare costs in these patients, Hefti said.

For example, HER2 is a growth factor doctors look for on the outside of tumors found in certain breast cancer patients. During HER2 testing, physicians can determine whether they need to prescribe drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin®), Hefti said. Without HER2 testing, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be wasted on non-beneficial treatments, he said.

Hefti’s research was conducted at minimal cost thanks to the New York State Department of Health providing data and support free of charge.

The database was available through the state, and the research was conducted in-house, making it very cost-effective. Hefti intends to continue similar research here at Harrisburg University.

“It’s very much, get the data, analyze it, publish it and move onto another data set,” he said.

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