Health & wellness

STAT

Rapid autopsies could speed cancer research

Dr. Dejan Juric is a research oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR STAT
Dr. Dejan Juric is a research oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Medical teams have long rushed to save the living. Now, increasingly, they’re rushing to attend to the dead.

A small but fast-growing number of hospitals are embracing procedures known as “rapid autopsies” — conducted in the hours immediately after a patient’s death.

The idea is to obtain tissues from tumors before they start significantly degrading, and then use genetic analysis technology to determine precisely how cancer cells survived every attempt to kill them.

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But the procedures are forcing doctors and patients to overcome their reluctance to discuss death, and family members to confront the idea of parting with loved ones’ bodies shortly after their death — within six hours, optimally.

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The procedures give pathologists an opportunity to explore the body more widely for tumors and to take more tissue to analyze than when a patient was alive. They can also keep the cancer cells alive in perpetuity in hopes of finding new ways to shut them down.

“There’s horrible poetry to the idea that your tumor lives longer than you do, but that’s what happens with this,” said Dr. Jody Hooper, a pathologist who runs the rapid autopsy program at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

So far, roughly 10 hospitals conduct the procedures.

The logistics for them can be complicated.

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Doctors discuss the procedure with patients, but in most states, it’s the surviving family members who must consent to the procedure.

Patients and family members can limit the scope of the autopsy however they wish, though Hooper said she “always makes some kind of incision. And I encourage families to consent to a full autopsy, because sometimes I can find tumor sites that don’t come up on imaging.”

Hopkins doctors typically broach the subject with patients while they are introducing the prospect of hospice care. But it also helps to have doctors trained in having the conversation, said Dr. Dejan Juric, a research oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“Autopsies are often talked about in negative terms, but if you ask to donate tissues that can help thousands of other people, almost everyone says yes,” he said.

Around 2011, Juric began treating a woman in her early 60s with breast cancer. She died in 2012, but before she did, Juric spoke with her and her husband about sampling her tumors to better understand what had eluded them during her treatment.

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They consented, and a rapid autopsy later revealed how the mutant genes that drive certain cancers will, when initially thwarted by chemo or other therapies, mutate again into slightly different variants of themselves depending on where and when the distant cancer grew.

Juric’s findings were published in the journal Nature early last year. He subsequently helped identify an experimental drug — buparlisib, made by Novartis — that targeted both the mutant gene that drove the initial tumor and the genetic cousins that drove distant metastases. (Juric has consulted for Novartis.)

Cindy Eid, whose sister died of breast cancer in 2014, recalled oncologists broaching the subject of a rapid autopsy with her in the days before her sister died.

Susan was not conscious at the time.

“I just instantly knew it was perfect for her,” Eid said, adding her sister would have wanted to help future patients. “Her philosophy was that if it’s experimental today, it could be a cure tomorrow. Or a treatment.”

Backed by a donation from Eid’s estate, Juric and his colleague at Mass. General, pathologist Dr. James R. Stone, the hospital created a formal rapid autopsy program this year.

The program will fuel one of the most significant trends in cancer research: the creation of what Juric calls patient avatars, the cell lines or mouse models derived from a patient’s tumor that can be used to test treatments for patients with similar histories.

“We’d like to use these avatars to potentially design even entire trials, just using these patient-derived models,” he said. “We want to build platforms. Make cell lines. Mouse models. Have labs ready and hungry to analyze the tumors.”

Bob Tedeschi can be reached at tedeschi@statnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @bobtedeschi. Follow Stat on Twitter @statnews.