Wales can be ‘global player’ in next generation medicine

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Wales can become a “global player” in precision medicine and game-changing treatments, according to the health minister.

Vaughan Gething is officially opening the UK’s first high-energy proton beam therapy centre for treating cancer.

The Rutherford Cancer Centre in Newport is a private clinic but took its first NHS patient in December.

Precision medicine aims to treat patients as individuals based on our genes and body’s biochemistry.

It is based on the principle that no-one is exactly the same – while scientific and technological advances mean more can be done with cutting-edge machines and genetic analysis to find out what is wrong with us and provide tailor-made treatments and therapies.

Proton beam therapy is a specialist form of radiotherapy that targets certain cancers very precisely.

Protons are generated in a particle accelerator and fired at a tumour at very high speeds – as much as 100,000 miles per second – but stop when they reach the tumour and so are less invasive to the rest of the body.

The first NHS Wales patient to get proton beam therapy

A year ago, Ryan Scott, 23, from Llechryd in Ceredigion was suffering headaches and bad neck pain and went to A&E in Haverfordwest, where they initially thought he had a virus.

But while he was there, he had a funny turn. A scan revealed a brain tumour, close to the optic nerve.

“I knew there was something wrong but it was quite a shock to hear it was a brain tumour. I had three major operations and they got most of the tumour out, but there was a little bit left.”

Proton beam therapy in America was first suggested, but then his specialist said there was an opportunity for treatment closer to home at the Rutherford centre at the end of last year.

“I didn’t feel anything once I was in there,” said Ryan. “I was lying on a bed and it took longer to make sure I was in the right position – I think it was only five minutes maximum for the treatment. It sounded like a printer would.”

Ryan, who works for the family timber frame business, said he is “getting there” and is now waiting for final scan results.

How can precision medicine help?

Prof Ian Weeks, dean of clinical innovation at Cardiff University’s school of medicine, said it was already possible to make diagnoses earlier and more accurately.

“Precision medicine is becoming extremely important to try to diagnose more precisely – in molecular terms, what the cancer is,” he said.

So it’s not just about the shape and size of a tumour, but what it is actually doing and how it behaves and responds to treatment.

“There are many biochemical mechanisms causing it and unless we can understand and diagnose those we can’t put the correct interventions in place,” said Prof Weeks.

“By looking in more detail at the patient’s biochemistry we can predict which drugs or therapies the cancer will be more responsive to and also those the patient may not take to awfully well.”

Machine learning and AI can also help in analysing data from images to tell doctors far more – and quickly.

Analysing our genes in detail can also help predict the risk of certain diseases developing, not just cancer but schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions.

The Welsh Government is providing an extra £2.3m this year for new genetic tests and £2m towards plans for new diagnostic and advanced medical services.

Mr Gething said there was a “compelling and achievable vision” for rapid and more accurate diagnostics and advanced therapies.

“In Wales, we are already making progress in the field of precision medicine and I am confident that we can be a global player in the race to harness its potential,” he added.

In the long run it could also save money for the NHS.

At the moment, decisions are made on whether particular drugs or treatments are affordable for the wider population or a particular group of patients. But in future, perhaps, we may be looking at analysis of what is best suited for each individual.

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