Genomic Sequencing: Precision data to better fight advanced cancer

Bryce Olson has taken his story public, including speaking at SXSW, to educate people about genomic sequencing to help doctors find precision medicine to fight cancer.

“I think that an important thing for people to take away is this can happen to anybody.”

With his fitness, passion for daily exercise and healthy lifestyle, Bryce Olson never expected he’d get cancer.

So when he started experiencing an urgent need to urinate, 15-20 times a day, he just chalked it up to old age.

“The thing that woke me up the most, I was surfing in Costa Rica, and I don’t like to pee in the ocean, it’s just too beautiful,” says Olson, “And I just couldn’t hold it anymore.”

A close friend had sage advice: when your body suddenly changes like that, don’t just brush it off or chalk it up to getting older. You need to see a doctor.

And by the time Olson got to a doctor, he got the news he never expected; he had stage-4 metastatic prostate cancer.

“I didn’t just have garden-variety prostate cancer,” he explains, “I had super-aggressive, spread to the bones, lymph nodes you know my doctors were freaked out about how fast it was growing.”

He began treatment immediately with the standard of care that 95% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer get: surgery, chemo, radiation—or, as he calls it, “Cut, Burn, Poison”.

And it didn’t work.

That’s when Olson demanded his doctor sequence his genes, and the genes in his tumor, to see what was driving his cancer. He got the idea from his work at Intel.

“People think of Intel as a chip company, but we’re a heckuva lot more,” he says.

Olson works as the global strategist for Intel’s Health and Life Sciences Group. He’d seen many examples of how geneticists were using the power of computing to sequence genes.

“We’re helping the health care and life sciences, all these cancer researchers, and genomic researchers, we’re helping them accelerate biomedical discoveries with our technology,” he explains.

Scientists at OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute sequenced his DNA. The data showed his team that his prostate cancer was linked to the PI3K family of enzymes that control cell growth. When that process goes haywire, those bad cells replicate rapidly as a tumor.

That precision data led Olson to a clinical trial of a new drug, one specifically designed to fight the process that was driving his cancer. And it worked.

“With some of these standard of care drugs, like chemo, the carpet bombing, it just kills everything rapidly dividing. That’s why people lose their hair, and they get mouth sores,” he says, “Whereas the targeted stuff just goes after what’s driving your cancer, the screwed-up mutations that are driving it.”

“That’s a much, in my mind, better way to fight it,” Olson says, “It’s much more humane.”

And he never would have known that he could be a candidate for a trial of a new cancer drug, without that initial demand: SEQUENCE ME.

“I got in a trial with that data, I would never have even known to get on the trial [without that genomic test], but that data opened up the door,” Olson says. “When you have advanced cancer, you need new hope, you need new doors opened for you.”

And now, five years after his diagnosis, and knowing what a difference a genetic test made for him, Olson is pushing other people with advanced cancer to demand the same from their doctors.

And he’s putting together a web page, SequenceMe.org, to help other people navigate what can be a complicated request. Some doctors don’t know the benefits advanced cancer patients can get from genomic testing.

“I think a lot of this stuff is supply and demand,” Olson says, “The minute patients start waking up and demanding it, then the industry has to respond.”

Gene testing helped Bryce Olson after the clinical cancer drug trial ended, too. He’d saved a few of the standard care options. But he didn’t know if they’d work.

He turned to Epic Sciences, a biomedical company based in San Diego. Epic has developed a test that’s so accurate on the cellular level, it can tell doctors and metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC) patients exactly how their cancer will respond to certain therapies.

It’s called an AR-V7 test. It's been on the market since February, and starting on December 10th, it will be reimbursed by Medicare.

Bryce’s results showed he’d respond well to hormone-targeted therapy. Five months in to that treatment, his tests show no active cancer in his blood. And he’s now five years removed from a diagnosis that initially gave him less than two years to live.

Now, he’ll not only watch his daughter graduate from 5th grade, but he plans to be there for her high school graduation, her college graduation, her wedding.

And he’s working to give others more years, and more life.

He’s started a music project, called FACTS (Fighting Advanced Cancer Through Songs), and released a CD. Well-known local musicians contributed, but Bryce wrote the songs, one form of mental therapy he turned to during his worst times.

And he’s speaking out, sharing his experience at SXSW and other places, where he hopes his story reaches the people who need to know there’s another way.

“The message I just really want to deliver is: demand sequencing. Demand genomic sequencing.”

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