Latest developments in the war against cancer

The vast varieties of sources, form, location and degrees of severity that cancer can present have made it challenging to treat, never mind cure, but medical advances continue to uncover new and promising approaches and courses of treatment.

Testing, imaging, biopsies and proactive monitoring for common conditions are making the earliest discovery phases of cancer faster, less invasive and more effective.

As cancer nears the dubious achievement of becoming the number one killer of Americans (now that we’re getting tough on heart disease and stroke), attention is shifting to prevention and early detection programs.

In the past, cancer would be detected when something went wrong in a big way. Pain, illness and/or a tumor of detectable size would drive patients in to see their doctor, by which point the cancer had already had a chance to gain a strong foothold in the body, damage tissue and organs, and, in many cases, spread. The more advanced a form of cancer becomes, the harder it is to eradicate in the body – or even slow the progression.

In the US, early screening programs for common cancers such as colon and breast cancer are helping doctors catch cancer in its earliest stages and allowing them to remove it more effectively and prevent damage. The HPV vaccine has been successful in preventing some cervical and anal cancers. The idea is to catch cancer, ideally, before it even forms, while it’s still something called a “premalignancy – in other words, cells that are not normal and healthy, and which have a predisposition to cancer but have not yet turned the corner.

Of course, there have long been campaigns to raise cancer awareness and encourage people to avoid known causes of cancer, such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity and excessive sun exposure. While there is value in identifying and targeting causes of cancer, changing lifestyle factors across the population is challenging and does not adequately address the problem.

Since people do still develop cancer, the next step is catching it before or as it forms, while there’s still time to effectively treat and stop it. One of the most significant recent shifts is researchers understanding of the efficacy of the immune system in targeting cancer. Obviously, the immune system doesn’t cure cancer on its own in all cases, or no one would get cancer in the first place, but it has shown to be effective in targeting and slowing some forms of cancer in earlier stages of the disease. There’s a tipping point: the immune system is strong, but eventually fails in the face of cancer’s drive to grow.

Current research is exploring the possibility of boosting, and in essence, “weaponizing” the immune system against cancer. Pharmaceutical research is exploring the possibility of immunotherapy – drugs that could strengthen immune response against cancer to the point where it could win the fight. There are already a limited number of success stories in this field, even against late-stage cancers.

Building on this promising direction, a new generation of cancer vaccines are under development for both preventative purposes (like the HPV vaccine) and therapeutic (for treatment of identified, existing cancers). These vaccines could be given to patients at risk of developing the corresponding type of cancer, in a way similar to the HPV vaccine being distributed to young women.

Boosting immune system response against cancer also has the benefit of strengthening the patient’s body against the invader (cancer), instead of the razed earth-style approach of traditional chemotherapy and radiation, which destroy the bad (cancerous cells) along with the good (the patient’s healthy tissue and systems). Much of the recent and current research and advances in cancer treatment have sought solutions that do less damage to patients while still being effective against the cancer, since it defeats the purpose of attacking the cancer if the patient doesn’t survive the treatment, or is too compromised by it.

Building on this idea of attacking, blocking or reversing cancer in its earliest stages, before it becomes too much of a threat, researchers are exploring the efficacy of simply applying existing drugs earlier.

Part of the effort then switches to identifying potential cancer, precancerous mutations and the likelihood of any given patient developing a specific form of cancer. Imaging techniques continue to become more accessible, detailed and precise. Blood tests, DNA screening and liquid biopsies are all technologies being explored and tested for earlier warning signs as well.

One of the challenges with due process in human treatment is that experimental methods take a long time to be approved for use. If you are high risk for cancer, or have already been diagnosed, you are probably motivated to stay on top of the latest research and volunteer for clinical trials wherever possible. Oncotarget is an open-access online journal of peer-reviewed medical research that you could use to research specific conditions and treatments, and stay up to date with the latest developments.

Cancer research is moving in exciting directions. If you or a loved one are at risk or are currently fighting cancer, staying up to date with the latest advances and asking about more options could improve your experience and your outcomes.