Applying lessons from the past

Shifting Cancer Research — A Systemic Approach

June 02, 2017     
By Fouad Namouni

Life & Science Magazine recently sat down with Fouad Namouni, M.D., head of Oncology Development, to talk about shifts in cancer research, which he compares with revolutionary advances in treating simple infections. Here’s what he had to tell us:

Fouad Namouni

Fouad Namouni, M.D., Head of Oncology Development

In the mid-1800s, scientist Louis Pasteur was one of the first to show that germs caused illness. Before that, people didn’t understand infections.

At that time, people thought about a lung infection or a liver infection separately, without understanding there may be a common denominator behind infection in any given organ.

After Pasteur established the germ theory of disease, scientists began to realize that a pathogen—be it a bacteria or a virus—can cause infections anywhere in the body. Based on that, we no longer focus solely on treating the organ, but on addressing the underlying disease. 

Today, we are shifting how we think about cancer treatment in the same way.

Whereas in the past we thought about how to treat lung cancer or liver cancer, with a different strategy depending on where it is in the body, now we’re generating data and conducting research that will give us insights into the genetic biomarkers in tumors.

Ultimately, we seek to understand the biology of the disease, to better understand why and how our medicines work. 

The Common Denominator


We’ve started seeing what I would call a “common denominator.” We’ll look to see if there is a biomarker, a genetic defect, or a molecular specificity that is common to certain cancers.

Then, our scientists research that subgroup of molecular or genetic biomarkers, and how it is best treated. If the signal turns out to be a molecular biology-defined cancer, for example, we can hone in on the right patient population to study.   

This research approach can help from a safety perspective—we reduce risk when we conduct studies in more specifically defined patients. And, we could save years in development time, getting much-needed therapies to patients faster. We’re starting to see that regulatory authorities are embracing this approach.

By investing in the biology of cancer—not of the organs, but of cancer—and trying to see what is the most appropriate for our targets to hit, I’m very confident we will make a lot of progress and that this progress will get faster and faster. 

Looking to the Future

Pasteur Insitute

Thinking back to the 1800s, Louis Pasteur’s research into the causes of bacterial infections led to a simple but important breakthrough—we needed to address the underlying infection, not the effected body part.

In the future, we will be able to identify cancer by a biomarker, a genetic defect, or a molecular specificity, no matter where the cancer is located in the body.

The world is changing. We are at a crossroads and I’m sure we are picking the right road.

related articles