Leadership in Cancer series (Part 3): Cancer care and research that uses comprehensive data sets
Dr. Willman's research has focused on the application of the latest genomic sequencing and computational technology to discover novel cancer-causing genomic mutations that can be translated to better diagnostics and therapeutics. She was involved in the Therapeutically Applicable Research to Generate Effective Treatments (TARGET) effort, part of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Genome Atlas Project, which led to several national clinical trials for the NCI addressing leukemia-causing mutations more frequently seen in Hispanic patients and those of American Indian genetic ancestry.
Discoveries such as these from the TARGET effort demonstrate the importance of registries and data sets in helping scientists understand each community they serve. These data guide physicians in defining individualized treatment plans for each patient and provide a resource that will enable cancer physicians at all three Mayo Clinic sites to understand the unique populations they serve.
"Racial and ethnic background, geography, and environmental factors can impact patients' genetic dispositions to certain cancers and treatment options," says Dr. Willman. "It is imperative that we understand the patients we serve at each Mayo Clinic location."
Radiation therapy is opening new doors to cancer treatment. Mayo Clinic is currently the largest provider of proton beam therapy in the United States and is scheduled to open an expanded proton beam therapy facility in Rochester, Minnesota, in 2025. Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, will be the first facility in North or South America to offer carbon ion therapy. These will eventually lead to offering boron neutron capture therapy for cancer treatment, which is a radiation therapy that specifically treats tumor cells without any harm to surrounding healthy cells.
In addition to providing these innovative treatment services, Mayo Clinic physician-scientists are studying targeted radiation therapies to better understand how they affect cancer and which patients best respond to these treatments. It is believed that targeted radiation creates neoantigens on a tumor's surface, which stimulates an immune response. Physicians at Mayo Clinic aim to successively sequence tumors before and after particle therapy to assess for neoantigen presence. If they are present in the sequencing, there is potential to target them with individualized mRNA vaccines.
With most cancer care innovations initially evaluated through clinical trials, Dr. Willman aims to accelerate Mayo Clinic's cancer clinical trials by providing physicians with the resources they need to seek solutions and initiate these trials. Participating in clinical trials is not just the first step toward innovative discoveries; it can also be the most regimented way for a patient to receive cancer care due to the detail-oriented nature of the trial.
"We have a menu of over 300 cancer clinical trials every year that are testing new drugs and bringing treatments to patients," says Dr. Willman. "Cancer clinical trials are essential to advancing our knowledge in cancer care."
Dr. Willman's experience using big data and comprehensive multi-omic profiling for individualized cancer care will guide Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center's innovative solutions in the future. Learn more about Dr. Willman's background and how innovative solutions support health equity for all cancer patients in parts one and two, respectively, of the MCCC Leadership Series.