How close are we to finding a cure for cancer? The answer to that question, unfortunately, is still unknown.
Despite many unsubstantiated claims that purport a cure is within reach – the truth is, scientists are still uncertain. What is known is that cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide (behind only heart disease), and that billions of dollars are spent each year on research and development in the hopes of uncovering new ways to treat, and one day eliminate this devastating disease. The good news is that cancer research has led to several new approaches that have exhibited clinical efficacy.
Here we detail some of the latest methods that are being implemented to combat this global killer.
A form of biological therapy – which uses living organisms to fight cancer – immunotherapy encompasses several treatment modalities that fight cancer by helping your immune system naturally ward off the disease. Types of immunotherapies that aid in counteracting the effects of cancer include:
Checkpoint inhibitors: These drugs are used to prevent T-cells from killing cancer cells while obstructing cancer’s ability to evade immune system detection.
Monoclonal antibodies: Cancer is very devious, and adept at fooling the immune system into believing it’s a friend rather than a foe. Monoclonal antibodies work by attaching themselves to specific cancer cells and revealing the cancer’s true nature to your immune system. Once identified, your immune system kills the cells. Some monoclonal antibodies do not elicit an immune response, and these are categorized as targeted therapies (detailed later).
Treatment vaccines: Antigens are harmful substances that appear on the surface of cells. The immune system can usually recognize, and eliminate antigens, and they possess a “memory” of how to respond to these substances in the future. Cancer vaccines are administered to enhance the immune system’s ability to discern and destroy antigens, specifically cancer-specific antigens, which contain certain molecules not found in healthy cells. Some cancer vaccines are developed from a person’s individual tumor sample and tailored specifically for that patient.
Cytokines: Proteins which are produced by your body’s cells. They play a pivotal role in the immune system’s capacity to respond to cancer invasion.
These drugs target the changes in cells that catalyze cancer’s mutation, and metastasis. Targeted therapy functions similarly to immunotherapy in pinpointing cancer cells for the immune system to destroy, but they also hinder cancer cells from growing by interfering with key proteins that instruct cancer cells to divide. Also, targeted therapies inhibit the formation of new blood vessels, which are a critical component in tumor growth. By eradicating these new blood vessels, targeted therapies can cause tumors to shrink.
Steam cell transplants:
High doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy can be detrimental to the body and kill blood-forming stem cells. Stem cell transplant procedures are given via needle injection and consist of healthy blood-forming stem cells, which subsequently travel through your bone marrow and replace the stem cells that were killed off by chemo and radiation. While stem cell transplants do not usually work against cancer directly, in certain cancers – such as multiple myeloma and some forms of leukemia – these stem cell therapies can directly counteract cancer.
This approach enables scientists to develop optimal treatments for patients based on a genetic understanding of their disease, and it applies to cancer. Although this method is not new, recent scientific advances have resulted in a proliferation of ideas surrounding its capabilities. Clinical trials are currently underway to the test the efficacy of precision medicine, but to qualify, the patient must have a tumor that contains a genetic change that be targeted by a tested treatment option.
Moreover, scientists have been testing other means of potentially curing cancer – such as starvation strategies, and the use of nanoparticles. Scientists and physicians hope that advancing these methods – and possibly implementing treatment plans that incorporate the use of several therapies in conjunction – will one day yield a cure. Until one is found, we can all take comfort in the fact that treatment options have significantly improved from decades ago, and in most cases, cancer is no longer the death sentence it once was.