Genomics and Precision Medicine Are Shaping the Future of Cancer Care


Dr. Harold Varmus giving a speech at a podium at Stevens Institute of Technology

After decades of research, a new understanding of cancer is revolutionizing the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of the deadly disease which, according to the American Cancer Society, will claim nearly 600,000 lives and produce more than 1.6 million newly-diagnosed cancer cases in the United States this year alone.

Members of the Stevens community – students, faculty, staff and guests – filled Stevens Institute of Technology’s DeBaun Auditorium on February 12, 2015 to hear Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, deliver a thought-provoking presentation on “Transitions in Cancer Research” as part of the university's President’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Introduced by Stevens President Nariman Farvardin as a “truly distinguished scientist and speaker,” Varmus delivered a highly-informative overview of the current state of cancer care and where it’s headed.

Since President Richard Nixon's vow to eradicate cancer back in 1971, countless billions have been spent by the federal government, universities, drug companies and philanthropies in pursuit of this goal. Today, more than four decades later, the prospect of a cure for most kinds of cancer remains elusive.

But as Varmus explains, cancer research and treatment have decidedly turned a corner in recent years.

As the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer, Varmus has helped pioneer an understanding of cancer as a disease of the genome. This new recognition has been deeply consequential. Discoveries in cancer genomics is ushering a new era in cancer diagnosis and patient care that is leading to more effective treatment strategies tailored to the genetic profile of each patient’s cancer, describes Varmus.

What makes cancer particularly challenging to treat, he says, is that unlike most genetic diseases, cancers are products of multiple mutations and can be highly varied from one case to another. People with the "same" cancer do not always respond the same way to the same medicine, Varmus adds, because each patient’s cancer is uniquely driven by distinct biological factors.

Treatment strategies, he says, must therefore be informed by specific characteristics of individuals, such as a person’s genetic makeup, or the genetic profile of an individual’s tumor.

Varmus noted that this shift in cancer research and treatment coincides with the emergence of “precision medicine,” a medical model that rejects the “one-size-fits-all-approach” of treating the “average patient," and instead uses the genetic information about a person’s disease to diagnose or treat that disease.

Precision medicine has been wholly embraced by the White House and is the subject of “a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease." In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama announced a new $215 million initiative dedicated to advance precision medicine.

Cancer, Varmus says, is the ideal starting point in the Precision Medicine Initiative. In addition to being a disease of the genome, Varmus says an explosion of new knowledge about the genetic mutations that cause tumors, coupled with advances in computational data, is creating enormous opportunities for improved therapy and treatment plans.

Going forward, Varmus says precision cancer medicine will rely on cutting-edge technology to better understand the individual's cancer such as DNA sequencing, the cost of which has fallen dramatically since 2001.

Big Data will also play a key role in the Precision Medicine Initiative. Varmus says better tools for managing and analyzing large data sets that emerge from precision medicine trials – medical records, laboratory test results, profiles of patients’ genes, and information about their diet, tobacco use, lifestyle and environment – will be needed to construct models that predict, with increasing accuracy, responses to treatment.

Varmus closed by expressing how encouraged he is by President Obama’s announcement of the Precision Medicine Initiative.

“The president’s decision to give public utterance to the ambitions that we in the cancer research field have will further drive, I hope, the ambitions of our investigators, the aspirations of patients, and even possibly the appropriations-making process in Congress to give us the tools we need to do this kind of work,” Varmus says.

Afterward, President Farvardin presented Varmus with a plaque on behalf of Stevens, thanking him for “a fascinating and extremely informative talk” on the role of science in advancing cancer research.

The President’s Distinguished Lecture Series was launched by President Farvardin in October 2012 as a forum to create dialogue on important topics in science and technology, the linkages between societal issues and advances in science and technology, and related policy issues.

Among the influential scientists, technologists and policymakers who have appeared as President’s Distinguished Lecture Series speakers are Dr. Craig Barrett, retired CEO and chairman of Intel; Dr. John Deutch, institute professor at MIT and former CIA director; Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Dr. Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

Join us in the fall for the next President’s Distinguished Lecture Series on October 7, 2015, featuring Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, chief investment officer of the Private Wealth Management Group (PWM) at Goldman Sachs.

For more information about the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, please visit