For many of us, it's fun to watch celebrities discover family-tree secrets on TV. But DNA research helps people in far more ways than simply entertainment. The Knight Diagnostic Laboratories, part of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, conduct pioneering research on cancer and the genetic alterations the disease may contain.

“The diagnoses we’ve been making at the microscope for the past 150 years or so have told us what kinds of cancer we’re looking at, but that doesn’t give a sense of their true complexity,” says Christopher Corless, MD, PhD, medical director of the Knight Diagnostic Laboratories. In other words, each cancer is different, and the most effective treatment targets each cancer individually.

We are moving toward such tailored treatments, according to Dr. Corless. “Mutations in the DNA are what make tumors grow, but most new cancer drugs are only targeted to a few of them,” he explains. “By identifying the exact mutations in a patient’s tumor, we can match up the drug to get the correct treatment.”

These mutations are uncovered by the Knight Diagnostic Laboratories’ cancer panels, DNA tests that focus on cancer and hereditary disorders. Advances in DNA technology are allowing OHSU to screen up to 50 genes in the amount of time it used to take to screen just one. These panels can be ordered by physicians, and Dr. Corless has been reaching out to area oncologists to educate them on the panels’ potential.

Not all cancers require extensive genetic testing, Dr. Corless emphasizes. While a person with leukemia should be tested right away, someone else with a superficial melanoma that can be removed entirely via surgery needn’t be tested. “Right now our cancer panels are more for an advanced type of cancer in which drug therapy is needed,” he says, adding that patients with cancer should talk to their doctors about what might be right for their situation.

Though there are some exceptions, diagnostic tests are becoming increasingly important in treating cancer and advancing cancer research. “This is an area that’s completely exploding in growth,” Dr. Corless says.

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