“It’s not just one person advocating.”

From a series of offices inside UK HealthCare’s Markey Cancer Center, there’s a virtual meeting going on. A team of doctors is poring over genetic testing, patient histories, new medications and novel treatments. It’s time-consuming, detail-obsessed work—and it’s work that can double a cancer patient’s chances at survival.

An over-the-shoulder shot of Dr. Kolesar looking at graphs and data on her laptop.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team began meeting virtually to discuss cases.

This is the meeting of the Markey Cancer Center Molecular Tumor Board. Every person involved is here for the same reason: to offer cancer patients a level of care that’s personalized on the molecular level, analyzing the genetic characteristics of their tumors on a case-by-case basis. In the process, the Board is also revolutionizing precision oncology—and reshaping the future of cancer care.

A group photo of Dr. Kolesar and the rest of the Molecular Tumor Board smiling for the camera in front of some windows.
“One of the most important things is that [this is] a team effort,” said Dr. Jill Kolesar.

The Molecular Tumor Board is an interdisciplinary team of experts in medical oncology, surgical oncology, pathology, radiology, genetic counseling and clinical pharmacology. Using a process called Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS), the Molecular Tumor Board analyzes tumor genotypes and molecular abnormalities, giving patients access to customized cancer therapies.

A photo of Dr. Kolesar smiling for the camera as she rests her hand on the back of a chair.
“Our goal is to get [each] patient the best possible treatment,” said Dr. Kolesar.

“Cancer treatment has changed dramatically in the last ten years,” said Dr. Jill Kolesar, who serves as co-director of the Molecular Tumor Board. “The more we learn about the mutations that are driving the cancer, the more drugs can be developed to target those specific mutations. It’s been shown in clinical trials, over and over again, that if you have a mutation and that mutation is targetable—and you receive targeted drug treatment—you do at least twice as well as someone who doesn’t have a targetable mutation.”

A photo of Dr. Sandra Beck and Ronnie Wu sitting in a doctor’s office while having a conversation. Dr. Beck is an older white woman with short white curly hair. She is wearing a white lab coat over a green shirt, several silver necklaces that have beads on them, and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. Ronnie is a young Chinese man with short black hair. He is wearing a long-sleeve blue and white checkered button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses.
The process gives patients a more detailed understanding of their treatment options.

Thanks to NGS reporting, the Molecular Tumor Board can examine anywhere from five to 700 genes—an enormous advancement from the days of single-gene testing. “A lot of cancers have dozens of different mutations, which can result in dozens of interventions,” said Dr. Kolesar. More testing and more information gives doctors and patients a better chance at finding an answer.

A candid photo of Dr. Kolesar and her colleague, Dr. Rachel Miller, sitting at a table together while looking at a piece of paper. Dr. Miller is a young white woman with long blonde hair. She is wearing a white lab coat over a blue top with a gold necklace, and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses.
More straightforward cases are typically reviewed by one or two doctors, while complex cases are reviewed by the entire board.

In addition to analyzing the higher amounts of data provided by the NGS report, the Molecular Tumor Board can offer customized recommendations for physicians, based on the very latest studies and treatments. For those facing a cancer diagnosis, it’s an approach that can make all the difference. Just ask Elizabeth (E) Barr—who is now living proof of the power of precision oncology.

A photo of Elizabeth (E) Barr looking off-camera as she sits outside with a cup of coffee. E is an older white woman with short brown hair. She is wearing a long-sleeve blue-and-white-striped shirt.
“[They] saved my life,” said E. “[I’m] so much better now.”

After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017, E underwent surgery and a grueling schedule of chemotherapy to beat it. But by 2018, her cancer was back and required a new approach. To identify the best path forward, her oncologist sent her case to the Molecular Tumor Board. The Board recommended a novel approach in treating her particular type of cancer, focused on a specific mutation in her tumor. Six months later, E’s scans were cancer-free.

A candid photo of E and her husband smiling at each other while standing under a metal gateway in their garden. Her husband is an older white man with white hair. He is wearing a blue short-sleeve polo that is tucked into his khaki pants.
“The whole staff there was wonderful to us,” said E. “It’s just amazing.”

E’s case is just one of many—and the benefits of precision oncology are only becoming clearer. A 2021 study found that Molecular Tumor Board review improved overall survival in non-small-cell lung cancer patients treated at Markey Cancer Center and community practices. In fact, patients without Molecular Tumor Board review had more than eight times higher risk of dying than those who received treatment recommendations from the Board.

A photo of Dr. Michael Cavnar pointing at a patient’s scan on a computer screen as Dr. Reema Patel looks on. Dr. Cavnar is a white man with short brown hair. He is wearing a white lab coat over a long-sleeve blue button-up shirt. Dr. Patel is a young South Asian woman with long curly black hair. She is wearing a yellow floral print dress, a gray face mask, a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, and a stethoscope around her neck.
Since starting in 2017, the Molecular Tumor Board has reviewed nearly 2,500 cases.

As one of only a handful of academic health care institutions in the United States to offer Molecular Tumor Board review to patients statewide, Markey Cancer Center is transforming cancer care throughout the Commonwealth. Through Molecular Tumor Board referrals, community medical oncologists can now provide patients with the best possible targeted therapies—without sending them across the state for treatments.

A photo of a nurse holding a stethoscope up to the chest of a patient laying in their hospital bed.
This year, the program added a Nurse Navigator to help with patient testing and referrals.

“The Molecular Tumor Board has been very helpful in getting drugs for people that insurance has denied,” said Dr. Kolesar. “It’s not just one person advocating, it’s a team that’s saying ‘This is the best treatment for the patient.’”

Expanding precision oncology and making the highest quality cancer care more accessible to more people is a primary driver of UK HealthCare’s Molecular Tumor Board—and is something Dr. Kolesar considers to be her personal mission.

A candid photo of Dr. Kolesar and Dr. Miller having a conversation in front of a TV with an image of cells on it.
Markey Cancer Center is able to help patients gain access to the latest drugs that target their specific mutation.

“I found myself asking, ‘Why are people in the community not getting access to these great cutting-edge treatments that we’ve developed? Why does it take ten, sometimes 20 years for these treatments to get into the community?’” said Dr. Kolesar. “My goal is for every patient in the community to have the same access that they would if they came to a large academic medical center.”

An over-the-shoulder shot of Dr. Kolesar and a colleague looking at something on a computer monitor. Her colleague is a white woman with brown hair that is tied back in a ponytail. She is wearing safety glasses, purple medical gloves, and a white lab coat over a patterned top.
Markey Cancer Center is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, which recognizes their strength in clinical research.

And through the Markey Cancer Center, which provides Molecular Tumor Board reviews to any patient in Kentucky whose physician requests one, she’s helping to do just that—changing how Kentucky treats cancer, one patient and one molecule at a time.

A photo of Dr. Kolesar posing confidently with her hands on her hips in front of a building on the UK HealthCare medical campus.
“[This] became a passion for me,” said Dr. Kolesar. “I’m excited to come to work every single day.”

Learn more about the work of the Molecular Tumor Board at UK HealthCare’s

Markey Cancer Center.

A candid photo of Dr. Rhodus smiling as she leans over metal railing in a metro setting. The background is out-of-focus, while she is in-focus. She is a white woman with long dark-brown hair. She is wearing a long-sleeve royal blue cardigan with a silver necklace and light pink lipstick.