For more than 35 years, Ken Dixon, M.D., FACS, a surgeon with Surgical Oncology of Northeast Georgia, has treated cancer patients in his practice located in Gainesville, Georgia. Over the past several years, upon reflecting on his career as a cancer surgeon and the patients he was able to help, his mind inevitably returned to those he could not. A long list of names, faces, and patients now will always dwell in his memory, and, more importantly, in the memories of the families they left behind too early and before their time.
“After a lifetime taking care of cancer patients, telling a patient or a family member ‘there is nothing left to do’ just got harder and harder,” Dixon said. “I have always hated delivering that news and that feeling has pushed me to want access to more options when standard-of-care treatments fail.”
The journey begins
Driven by these very personal experiences with individual patients, in 2015, Dixon began a journey to do more. This journey led him to tumor tissue and its power to create new options in care. It also led him to the emerging field of precision medicine. In 2017, Dixon began bringing together a diverse group of experts with the varied skill sets necessary to develop a tissue storage and banking process for the individual benefit of the patient called SpeciCare. (The name SpeciCare emphasizes the provision of care specific to the patient.)
Revolutionary in the field, SpeciCare’s goal is to collect data and living patient tumor tissue from each individual cancer patient in order to connect it with research for that individual’s benefit.
“Traditionally, the research field and biopharma have been focused on finding a cure for cancer, while my job has been to cure the cancer patient sitting in front of me,” Dr. Dixon said. “To my way of thinking, there is actually a big philosophical difference between the two. Research for tomorrow does not benefit my patient of today and that patient should always come first.”
SpeciCare saves an individual’s living tumor tissue in multiple formats including by freezing it in a viable (living) state and then making it available for individual, patient-directed research and clinical testing. Through this process, SpeciCare enables access to previously inaccessible innovative testing, clinical trials, and cutting-edge therapies to improve patient outcomes and the quality of life.
“In today’s growing revolution of personalized cancer therapies, saving as much available tumor tissue from each patient is now more important than ever. Discarding valuable tumor tissue is no longer an option, and keeping as much of it as possible is needed to derive critical data to drive the best treatment decisions,” said Laszlo Radvanyi, Ph.D., past senior vice president and head of Immuno-Oncology Research at EMD Serono and current chair SpeciCare Advisory Board. “SpeciCare is uniquely positioning itself to be a central hub to acquire, process and bank tumors from individual patients to derive critical genetic and functional data guiding not only more individualized therapies but also as a valuable source of tissue for research on more highly effective cancer therapies.”
New frontiers in cancer research
Dixon also has reflected on a career during which time the cancer research community has made tremendous strides. In 1976, the same year as Dixon’s internship in surgery, the modern era of cancer knowledge and research dawned when Harold Varmus and Michael Bishop made their famous discovery of a cancer gene in a chicken sarcoma virus.
“I started learning about the remarkable advances in cancer research and became a sort of cancer research groupie. I even got autographs of scientists I met at meetings for my children,” he said with a smile.
But over time Dixon became dissatisfied with the disconnect, what he says is “the unnecessary chasm,” between leading-edge research and the community physician and individual patient.
Eighty-five percent of cancers are treated in community settings such as Gainesville, not in big cancer centers such as MD Anderson in Houston, where Dixon trained, or Emory in nearby Atlanta. Dixon believes SpeciCare can serve as the missing link connecting community-based care to the most advanced medical treatments for the cancer patient and deliver that treatment, for the most part, at home.
Cancer’s ‘fingerprint’ creates innovative options
Tumor tissue is similar to a fingerprint, holding a unique set of characteristics for every patient. Research has found there is great knowledge to be gained from tumor tissue, an item traditionally used by pathology and then discarded as medical waste. It is now known that living tumor tissue may be the key to unlocking new personalized treatment options and revelations in cancer care that were not previously available. If kept alive, it has the power to provide new options for care including:
- Personalized therapies
- Pertinent clinical trials
- Chemo-sensitivity testing
- Cancer vaccines
- TIL (Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocyte) treatments
- Genetic sequencing
- Organoid creation (growing the patient’s own tumor in 3D culture)
- Access to researchers
Tumor tissue will still be used by local pathology to diagnose and stage cancers. However, through SpeciCare, the patient can take control of his or her remaining tumor cells and put them to work for their benefit.
“We know that when time matters most, patients want answers, options, and quality of life,” Dixon said. “By bringing the focus of cancer research on to the individual patient, we believe we may be able to provide access to solutions that could extend life beyond months to years. We aren’t doing the science. We are just providing access to it.”
The presence of viable tumor tissue means many tests can be done on the tumor itself instead of the patient.
“By providing access to testing on tumor tissue outside the body, our goal is to avoid unnecessary side effects during the treatment process,” Dixon added. “And by returning individualized information back to the patient and their clinical care team, patients can make informed decisions about their care.”
Saving and preserving tumor tissue alive can offer individuals a new and important validation step to eliminate ineffective therapies and identify effective therapies more quickly. Frozen tissue also may allow patients being treated in their local community access to leading-edge solutions that transcend geographic boundaries and can be delivered locally.
Hope for the future
“Dr. Dixon’s commitment to the 4,657 new cancer patients being diagnosed every day has been unwavering during the development of SpeciCare,” said Jim Mathis, interim chief financial officer and board chair for SpeciCare. “At every juncture, he has challenged us to consider what is best for the patient, their family and their physician and to think outside of the standard processes to create something that does not currently exist.”
By offering physicians and patients specific pathways to personalized therapies and pertinent clinical trials, and providing researchers with greater access to viable tissue, SpeciCare hopes to be a catalyst in the development of the cancer treatment field and research for the benefit of the cancer patient.
“As someone who has experienced firsthand the role of the caregiver through a cancer journey, I know there are so many important decisions to be made and expenses to be considered,” Mathis said. “I unearthed every opportunity I could for my wife and, at the end of the day, I found some peace that I did all I could. I appreciate Dr. Dixon’s passion in making known this cutting-edge precision medicine and personalized care option as well as his dedication to making it available to a significantly larger percentage of cancer patients through cutting the costs to the lowest possible point and working to make it even lower over time.”
SpeciCare provides each cancer patient with the opportunity for discovering innovative treatment options by empowering individual control of tumor tissue and health care information in partnership with the physician and health care team.
Dixon’s message to patients and their families is a simple one.
“You only get one chance to save your tumor tissue. Don’t throw it away.”
For more information about SpeciCare, visit specicare.com or call 1 (833) 242-2873.