How testing 'living' cancer tissue may yield important answers

When a doctor told 36-year old Elissa Reynolds she had advanced colon cancer in the fall of 2017, the Buford, Georgia, marketing manager couldn't believe it.

"I was only 34 at the time," Reynolds says. "So, I thought, this can't be happening to me."

Within a week and a half, Reynolds had begun chemotherapy, hoping to shrink the tumor in her colon, and two more in her liver.That's when she met cancer surgeon Ken Dixon.

"I've been taking care of cancer patients for nearly 40 years, and I've lost too many," Dr. Dixon says.

That's why Dixon has become increasingly focused on a new approach to how we treat cancer, known as "functional precision medicine."

It involves taking tumor tissue collected during biopsies or surgeries, and keeping it alive, so it can be tested to find out which cancer drugs seem to work best against that particular cancer. Dixon says he knows the idea of taking someone's tumor and keeping in alive may strange.

"But if you really think about it, it makes absolute sense," he says.

Elissa's chemo drug was shrinking the tumor in her colon and one of her liver tumors. But it wasn't working against the third tumor in her liver.

"The other tumor was still too big to remove, too dangerous to take out," she says.

So, Dr. Dixon removed the smaller tumor in Elyssa's liver, and sent part of the tissue to a pathologist to study. Then his company SpeciCare, shipped the rest of the remaining tissue, stored in solution to keep it alive for up to 4 days, to an out-of-state laboratory.There, he says, the tissue was tested against 130 different cancer agents.

"Rather than taking a shot in the dark, of saying, 'Let's try this medicine, no let's try this medicine,' You know it works on her tumor, why would you not use that?" Dixon asks.

Reynolds paid about $6,000 for the testing, which, she says, gave her critical answers.

"It was like a breath of hope, that there were more options," she says.

Dixon says the tests revealed Reynolds tumor was vulnerable to about 20 drugs of the 130 tested.

"Finding out that there is a range of medicines I am sensitive to, is finding that I have a future, really," Reynolds says.

Her oncologist kept Reynolds on standard colon cancer drug, but added another used for advanced, or metastatic, breast cancer.

"Her main concern is whether we can get this paid for by insurance," Reynolds says. "Because these are not standard medicines for colon cancer, so there is some pushback from insurance."

To try get around that, Reynolds and her oncologist are looking at clinical trials, or studies of experimental new drugs, which are offered at no charge to trial participants.

"But they're trials specifically based on the drugs that we know are going to work," she says.

Two recent scans show her liver tumor seems to be getting smaller.

"It's not shrinking quickly, but it's shrinking, and that's good" Reynolds says. "We're going in the right direction."

That gives her hope that she'll have more time with her boyfriend and their dog and cat.

"It's life-changing," Elyssa Reynolds says.

Dr. Dixon says functional precision medicine is so new, it is typically only available at major cancer research centers or to pharmaceutical companies working on new drugs.

His company,, Dixon hopes, will open this technology up to patients in their communities.

Their tumor can do the travelling, he says, and then can get care at home.

The cost of the testing is not covered by insurance and can range, Dixon says, between about $500 to more than $6,000, based on the number of drug agents tested against the tumor tissue.