Doctor's Gene Measurement Might Speed Cancer Diagnosis

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - A patented method for measuring which genes in a cell are turned on and how hard they are working could help speed the diagnosis of cancer and help doctors find ways to attack tumors, says a doctor who developed it.

Dr. James Willey, a researcher of the Medical College of Ohio, has three patents on the method he has been studying for 10 years.

The National Cancer Institute this month awarded a $1 million grant to establish a national center for measuring the gene activities at the medical school.

"Jim Willey has come up with a procedure where, with a relatively small number of cells, he can actually go after hundreds of different genes," said William Thilly, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Nobody else can touch that."

Dr. David Cote of University of Southern California compared Willey's invention to other technologies that look at the genetic signatures of cancer.

Willey's invention could replace the standard technology because it is less expensive and less cumbersome, he said.

"We believed it had potentially some very clear advantages," Cote told The Blade. "So far, all those issues have proven true."

Willey's invention is called Standardized Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction.

The method relies on a chemical reaction that is now used to identify short stretches of DNA but expands that to stretches of the DNA chain that have been activated by the cell.

By learning what genes are active in a tumor, researchers could eventually learn the genetic signatures for different types of lung cancer, Willey said.

It also could improve diagnostic accuracy and the quality of treatment, he said.

Last week, Gene Express Inc. -- a company he founded with his former high school math teacher, Alfred Pollock -- moved into the Medical College of Ohio research park from Huntsville, Ala.

Pollock, the chief executive, said the 3-year-old company plans to employ 20 people. The company makes the compounds needed for the process.

Willey said he was surprised that acceptance of the technique has been slow. He said he expected competition from other researchers when he filed his original and two follow-up patents but found none.

When he published his data in scientific journals in 1998, he was surprised again when the work he thought so essential to the advance of genetic research was ignored.

"I assumed people would pick it up right away. It just didn't happen," he said.

The national grant shows official recognition of the method, he said.

Another critical advantage of Willey's method over others, researchers say, is its ability to get results from very few cancer cells.

While some of the techniques on the market require a surgical biopsy to get a big enough tumor sample to test, Willey's method needs only a small sample of cells that can be drawn through a needle, said Dr. Matthew Meyerson, an assistant pathology professor at Harvard Medical School and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)