Slowly but surely, cancer death rates in the United States are declining for men, women and children.1 In 2018, America’s biopharmaceutical companies were working on 1,100 different medicines and vaccines for cancer, and there have been some tremendous breakthroughs in understanding how to treat cancer at the molecular level, the importance of using combination drugs and improved guidelines for screening and prevention.2 In honor of Cancer Control Month, Supplementally Speaking takes a look at some of the most significant findings in cancer research over the last few years.
FDA drug approvals
Every new drug approved by the FDA brings a glimmer of hope to those whose cancer is not responding to current drugs. In 2017, the first gene-therapy to treat cancer was approved by the FDA to treat certain pediatric and young adult patients with a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).3 In all, 23 new drugs were approved to treat cancer in 2018, and already in 2019 there have been 3 new drugs. No doubt that some of the 1,100+ drugs currently in the pipeline will go on to save even more lives.
Immunotherapy has become its own subspecialty of oncology as scientists study how to turn our own immune systems against cancer. The immune system’s natural response to kill cancer cells is turned off by cancer, but new breakthroughs have allowed scientists to harness the power and precision of the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
Immunotherapy does not work for everyone, and it can have serious side effects, but it has allowed many cancer patients to extend their lives. Because everyone has an immune system, and the immune system works throughout the entire body, there is great hope that making strides in immunotherapy means we are getting closer to curing cancer.4
Just like it sounds, combination therapy is using two different types of chemotherapy drugs or chemotherapy with immunotherapy drugs to attack cancer. Using combination therapy helps decrease the risk of the cancer becoming resistant to drug treatment, it enables both drugs to be introduced earlier in the disease stage, increases the chances of eliminating the cancer by affecting multiple targets on the cancer, and allows for lower doses. Ongoing research is looking into which types of drugs work best in combination for different types of cancer.5
“Liquid biopsy” and cancer sniffing dogs have made recent headlines in cancer news. Traditionally, biopsies to test for cancer are taken as tissue samples directly from the tumor. The idea with liquid biopsies is that a blood test can reveal traces of the cancer’s DNA circulating through the blood. Liquid biopsies are much less invasive and much easier to perform than tissue biopsies, and they can detect cancer before symptoms are present. It’s still in the early stage of development with researchers trying to solve the problem of detecting the tiny amounts of cancer DNA and also of determining where the cancer is located, if it does show up in the blood test.6
On a similar note, dogs may be able to sniff out cancer in a blood test. They have a highly evolved sense of smell, and can smell things humans cannot perceive. In a recent study,link opens in a new window dogs were able to sniff out blood samples from patients with cancer with a 97% accuracy rate.7
Last summer, the American Society for Clinical Oncology released news that according to a long-term, federally-funded study, thousands of women who are facing a breast cancer diagnosis won’t need to undergo chemotherapy and all its painful side effects, to achieve optimum results.8 Women with the most common types of breast cancer can achieve the same results (with surgery) without undergoing chemo. Read more about the study here.
Colorectal screening updates
The American Cancer Society recently updated its screening recommendation for colon cancer, noting that the incidence of colon cancer is increasing in people under the age of 50. They now recommend that people start getting screened for colon cancer beginning at age 45, instead of at 50. Read more about colon cancer here.9
Prevention and access
Researches have noted that there is a disparity along economic and racial lines among those who are contracting and/or dying of cancer. They are working to uncover problems some segments of the population have in getting earlier screening and access to care.10
1 “Cancer Statistics.” National Cancer Institute, cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statisticslink opens in a new window.
2 PhRMA Cancer Medicines in Development 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved from phrma.org/report/list-of-2018-medicines-in-development-for-cancerlink opens in a new window
3 Office of the Commissioner. (n.d.). Press Announcements - FDA approval brings first gene therapy to the United States. Retrieved from fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm574058.htmlink opens in a new window
4 What Is Cancer Immunotherapy? (n.d.). Retrieved from cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy/what-is-immunotherapy.htmllink opens in a new window
5 Bayat Mokhtari, R., Homayouni, T. S., Baluch, N., Morgatskaya, E., Kumar, S., Das, B., & Yeger, H. (n.d.). Combination therapy in combating cancer. Retrieved from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28410237link opens in a new window
6 “Liquid Biopsy: Past, Present, Future.” American Cancer Society, cancer.org/latest-news/liquid-biopsies-past-present-future.htmllink opens in a new window.
7 (2019, April 8). Study shows dogs can accurately sniff out cancer in blood: Canine cancer detection could lead to new noninvasive, inexpensive ways to detect cancer. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 17, 2019 from sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190408114304.htmlink opens in a new window
8 Most Women With Early Stage Breast Cancer Can Forgo Chemotherapy When Guided by a Diagnostic Test. (2018, June 03). Retrieved from asco.org/about-asco/press-center/news-releases/most-women-early-stage-breast-cancer-can-forgo-chemotherapylink opens in a new window
9 Colorectal Cancer Screening Guidelines. (n.d.). Retrieved from cancer.org/health-care-professionals/american-cancer-society-prevention-early-detection-guidelines/colorectal-cancer-screening-guidelines.htmllink opens in a new window
10 Lichtenfeld, J. L. (2019, January 15). Behind the recent good news in cancer statistics. Retrieved from kevinmd.com/blog/2019/01/behind-the-recent-good-news-in-cancer-statistics.htmllink opens in a new window