Gwen’s Story: The Power of Precision Health
Gwen Brack was a junior in college when she first noticed some blood in the toilet. She was worried enough to call home and schedule a visit with her family doctor. But at 21, she didn’t suspect anything serious and moved forward making plans for an upcoming spring break vacation.
Those plans – and her plans for the future – soon came to a halt. Gwen was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic rectal cancer. She endured a brutal year of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, all while trying to complete college. But her journey was far from over.
Six months after graduation, doctors found 13 tumors on her liver. Less than nine years since she was first diagnosed, Gwen’s cancer has recurred a total of five times, most recently on her bladder.
After her latest surgery, Gwen’s oncologist, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Director Patrick J. Loehrer Sr., MD, referred her to the cancer center’s precision genomics program to help decide the best course of action. As part of the program – a partnership between IU School of Medicine and IU Health — physicians and scientists analyze the genetic blueprint of each patient’s tumor. Based on their findings, they develop a customized treatment plan that attacks the tumor’s unique vulnerabilities.
In Gwen’s case, physicians came back with what may seem to most like an unlikely therapy: asprin.
Research has demonstrated that regular asprin use may be linked to improved survival in patients with colorectal cancer with a certain genetic mutation. Gwen’s tumor tested positive for that mutation. Today, she takes an asprin a day as a preventative measure.
“That was an amazing relief, as you can imagine, that I didn’t have to go back on these chemos that made me sick and tired and have neuropathy and really ruined quality of life,” she said.
Bryan Schneider, MD, associate professor of medicine at IU School of Medicine and director of the Precision Genomics Program, points to Gwen’s story as an example of the capabilities of precision medicine to improve lives. And we are only beginning to understand how to harness the full power of genomics and other advances to personalize care.
That is why IU School of Medicine is working aggressively to expand research in the field as part of its Precision Health Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to combine factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and environment to create treatments and prevention methods that will work for individual patients.
While applicable to a range of diseases, cancer is a primary focus.
“In the past, our goal might have been to add weeks or months to the life of a patient with advanced cancer,” said IU School of Medicine Dean Jay L. Hess, MD, PhD, MHSA. “With the advances that have been made – and that will be made through the Precision Health Initiative – our goal is to cure people.”
That gives Gwen real hope. She knows her cancer is likely to return. If it does, she is counting on researchers to have new tools available to help her once again beat it back.
“Research gives me life,” she said, “and it gives me a chance at having a full life.”