Living tumors offer cancer patients new hope, local surgeon says
By Layne Saliba | May 26, 2017
As a cancer surgeon with more than 35 years of experience, Dr. Ken Dixon was tired of giving patients bad news.
Time and again, he had to have the difficult conversation with patients and their families, telling them there was nothing more he could do to rid them of cancer. He didn’t want to have that conversation anymore, so he did something about it.
“If I’m sitting across from you, and I say ‘I’m sorry. I don’t have anything else.’ That is a final statement,” said Dixon, a surgeon with Surgical Oncology of Northeast Georgia. “There needs to be something else.”
For him, “something else” was preserving tumor tissue in its living state after its initial analysis instead of tossing it in formalin, which kills it. By keeping the tissue alive, pathologists can test new therapies that develop and potentially offer therapies to that patient.
Enter SpeciCare, a new system Dixon put together that will allow for the easy handling and storage of that live tumor tissue. After the routine pathological analysis is done in the operating room, patients now have the option, by signing a directive, to have the remaining tumor tissue sent off to another pathology lab to be stored in multiple formats for further research.
“There’s no living tissue saved routinely, and this is the way it’s been since the 1870s,” Dixon said. “So (dead tumor tissue) gives you all the information about what a tumor looks like. But it doesn’t give you all the information that having a living tumor tissue would provide you.”
He said only one other company saves living tumor tissue. StoreMyTumor was the first to do it, but Dixon said the price for that service is three times SpeciCare’s cost of just under $2,000. Dixon said StoreMyTumor sees it as more of a “niche market,” but he wants to see it become “standard care.”
“This is something that shouldn’t just be available to people with a lot of money,” Dixon said. “It should be available to the masses.”
That’s one of SpeciCare’s biggest struggles. Insurance doesn’t cover it, so the patient has to pay the entire bill. Because of that, Dixon said patients often aren’t aware that it’s an option because “we’ve been a little bit stymied by the viewpoint that the medical care you receive is the medical care that insurance OKs.”
Dixon, along with one of his investors, Dr. Pierpont Brown, has worked to make it a more mainstream idea to help patients have hope for a better future.
“I think it’s a novel idea,” said Brown, a general surgeon with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group. “We’re proving that we can harvest the tissue and hang on to it and save it for future use. So I think as we develop more treatments that are directed toward the genetic makeup of tumors, I think it’s exceptionally important to have that tumor, to know the characteristics of that tumor for future treatment.”
Dixon said each patient’s tumor is different. He compared it to a fingerprint and said each tumor may respond differently to the same therapies. SpeciCare’s ultimate goal and purpose is to analyze a patient’s tumor tissue and “connect it with research for that individual’s benefit.”
The way that happens is actually a pretty simple process. After a patient meets with Dixon, and he determines if they are a good candidate for SpeciCare’s services, he offers the service and answers any questions they have.
“I would say, ‘This is a serious problem and we want to go through the standard therapies, but because there is a chance that you might at some point fail this therapy, let’s save some of your tumor tissue to have available,’” Dixon said.
If the patient decides to move ahead with SpeciCare, they sign a directive to their surgeon to save some tumor tissue. After a routine pathological analysis, the surgeon cuts the tumor into small pieces, puts it in a liquid that keeps it alive, then into a box called a SpeciKit that is sent to an off-site pathology lab.
Once it gets to the lab, it’s examined and processed again. Finally, it’s frozen in a way that keeps it alive and then placed in a repository as they “search for clinical trials” and “appropriate therapies to be delivered back to that patient.”
“We’re keeping the tumor alive,” Dixon said. “So we can treat that tumor with targeted therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of agents and then we see what that tumor does.”
Dixon said an important part of the process is the fact that patients are able to “take some sort of control.” He said historically, the view of tumor tissue has been that once it’s removed from the body, it doesn’t matter to that patient anymore. With SpeciCare, Dixon is trying to change that.
“Our job, the job of physicians in the community, is to let people know we should be saving tumor tissue in a living state,” Dixon said. “We should continue with the processes we normally do, but in addition to that, we should be saving that living tumor tissue.”