Northwest Liver Research Program, Department of Surgery, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.
With the widespread adoption of molecular profiling in clinical oncology practice, many physicians are faced with making therapeutic decisions based upon isolated genomic alterations. For example, epidermal growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are effective in EGFR-mutant non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC) while anti-EGFR monoclonal antibodies are ineffective in Ras-mutant colorectal cancers. The matching of mutations with drugs aimed at their respective gene products represents the current state of "precision" oncology. Despite the great expectations of this approach, only a fraction of cancers responds to 'targeted' interventions, and many early responders will ultimately develop resistance to these agents. The underwhelming success of mutation-driven therapies across all cancer types is not due to an inability to detect genetic changes in tumors; rather a deficit in functional insight into the genomic alterations that give rise to each cancer. The Achilles heel of precision oncology thus remains the lack of a robust functional understanding of an individual cancer genome that then allows prediction of the best therapy and resultant outcome for that patient. Current practice focuses on one 'actionable' mutation at a time, while solid cancers typically possess many mutations that involve different cellular sub-populations within a tumor. No method or platform currently exists to guide the interpretation of these complex data, nor to accurately predict response to treatment. This problem is particularly germane to primary liver cancers (PLC), for which only a handful of targeted therapies have been introduced. Here, we will review strategies aimed at overcoming some of these challenges in precision oncology, using liver cancer as an example.