The city of Philadelphia is known throughout the world as a centerpiece of American history and actions that gave birth to the American Revolution. It has another legacy that’s also recognized globally – it’s the home of a discovery that ushered in a new era in cancer research that has revolutionized cancer care and impacts millions of patients. Paradigm-shifting research in Philadelphia a half century ago led to the first targeted therapy for cancer and today’s emerging era of personalized medicine.
In celebration of this seminal discovery in cancer biology, oncology experts and patient advocates this week attended the Philadelphia Chromosome Symposium: Past, Present and Future, hosted by the Fox Chase Cancer Center. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the first genetic abnormality associated with cancer, and the first to lead to a targeted therapy for cancer. Members of the oncology community, including scientists associated with the original discovery, celebrated the discovery’s impact on science and medicine as well as the state of personalized medicine today.
What does this discovery from a half century ago mean for patients a half century from now? It paved the way for the real potential to transform many cancers into chronic diseases. The Philadelphia chromosome was discovered in 1959 when David A. Hungerford, a graduate student at Fox Chase Cancer Center, and Peter C. Nowell, a University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine pathologist, detected an abnormality on chromosome 22 in cells taken from patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). This chromosomal abnormality became known as the Philadelphia chromosome, for the city where it was discovered. The 1960 publication of their research marked the first scientific discovery to lead to a targeted therapy for cancer. Today, many patients with CML live with cancer as a chronic condition by taking imatinib mesylate (brand name: Gleevec), a drug therapy that targets the cancer-causing protein produced by the Philadelphia chromosome.