Cancer. We're all touched by it in one way or another, whether we are survivors ourselves, or our friends or loved ones have been affected by the disease. But while the statistics are sometimes grim — the number of new cancer cases is projected to rise to 22 million within the next 20 years, according to the World Health Organization — there are also rays of light in cancer research that offers hope for better options when it comes to diagnosis, treatment and a cure.
Here's a snapshot of four breakthroughs happening right now in cancer research that are certain to save lives in the near future.
1. New tools to fight childhood cancer
Cancer is complex, as each type causes a unique reaction within the body and reacts differently to treatment. Now, thanks to a team of U.S. scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), researchers around the world will have models of 12 common types of childhood cancer that they can use to better understand these complex reactions and test how various treatments will affect different cancer cells.
The team grew cells from patient tumors in mice and created nearly 100 models of 12 types of pediatric cancer, HHMI said in a statement. They're making the samples available for free to the scientific community by publishing their data in the journal Nature. This new wealth of information is predicted to break open many areas of childhood cancer research.
The 12 cancers they modeled are:
- Wilms tumours
- Ewing sarcomas
- High-grade sarcoma
- Malignant rhabdoid tumour
- Synovial sarcoma
- Renal medullary carcinoma
- Desmoplastic small round cell tumor
- Epithelioid sarcoma
2. Breakthroughs in immunotherapy treatment
Current treatment options for cancer include chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy, which means using the body's own immune system to fend off the disease. Of the three, immunotherapy is the least devastating to the body as a whole because it relies on targeted cancer destruction rather than attacking all of the cells in the general area of the cancer. So breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy treatment are a big deal.
Combining an immunotherapy drug with chemotherapy increased the survival time of some lung cancer patients compared to patients treated with chemotherapy alone, according to a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine. More than 69 percent of the patients who had immunotherapy plus chemotherapy were alive after one year, compared to 49 percent of those who were treated with only chemotherapy.
In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a new cell-based gene therapy to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is a cancer of blood and bone marrow and the most common childhood cancer in the U.S. The treatment involved removing cells from a patient's own immune system, genetically modifying them to kill cancer cells, and then sending them back into the patient to wipe out the disease.
The drug is called Kymriah, or CAR-T-cell therapy, and it is changing the outcome for patients with this type of cancer. In a clinical study, 63 ALL patients were given the treatment after their cancer failed to respond to other treatment methods. After three months, 83 percent of those patients were in remission.
In another immunotherapy research breakthrough, a team of scientists lead by researchers at the National Cancer Institute have identified the specific genes that can help improve success with the treatment. In the past, doctors have been baffled when certain tumors don't respond to immunotherapy treatment. This study identified 100 genes that play a role in the immunotherapy process. With this information, doctors can more easily identify issues that could hinder treatment, such as a malfunction in one of the identified genes.
Researchers are hoping this study will serve as a blueprint to help cancer scientists better understand immunotherapy and develop new treatments to circumvent resistant tumors.
3. Advances in melanoma diagnoses
Check those moles and stay on top of what your skin looks like. A team of Italian and Greek researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology that says new moles are more likely to pop up as the result of melanoma. The team also found that when melanoma does develop from an existing mole, it's likely to be thinner than those that come from new moles, suggesting a better possible outcome for the patient. Armed with this new knowledge, doctors can make better and more immediate recommendations for their skin cancer patients.
4. A link between breast cancer and heart health
What's the link between breast cancer and heart health? Researchers presented a study at the 2017 European Society of Cardiology Congress in Barcelona that found women with a history of high cholesterol tend to have lower rates of breast cancer, suggesting that statin drugs — often prescribed to treat high cholesterol — may also offer protective benefits when it comes to breast cancer.
In a review that included more than 32,000 women — half with high cholesterol and half without — researchers found that women who were taking statin medications to control their high cholesterol were 33 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those whose cholesterol levels were normal. And the women with high cholesterol who did develop breast cancer were 40 percent less likely to die over the 14-year study period than women who had developed breast cancer but did not have high cholesterol.
The study's authors don't know for sure why women with high cholesterol would have a lower incidence and a higher survival rate for breast cancer, but they think it might have something to do with the statin drugs, which not only reduce cholesterol but also have been shown to reduce overall inflammation in the body. This finding could help improve treatment options for women battling the disease.
5. A pen that detects cancer during surgery
This last development in cancer research isn't as far along as some of the others on this list, but a handheld device called the MasSpec Pen is so revolutionary that it warranted an honorable mention, so to speak.
The pen-shaped device is designed to help surgeons determine if tissue is cancerous, which means they're able to remove more of a cancerous tumor during a surgery with less risk of leaving any cancerous tissue behind. It takes a small sample of molecules from the tissue through a drop of water at the tip of the pen, then passes them through a mass spectrometer. About 10 seconds later, it tells doctors whether the tissue is cancerous or not, and what kind of cancer it is.
“If you talk to cancer patients after surgery, one of the first things many will say is ‘I hope the surgeon got all the cancer out,’” Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, who designed the study and led the team, said in a press release. “It’s just heartbreaking when that’s not the case. But our technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery.”
This new invention is much faster than the current process, which UT Austin explains:
The current state-of-the-art method for diagnosing cancers and determining the boundary between cancer and normal tissue during surgery, called Frozen Section Analysis, is slow and sometimes inaccurate. Each sample can take 30 minutes or more to prepare and interpret by a pathologist, which increases the risk to the patient of infection and negative effects of anesthesia. And for some types of cancers, frozen section interpretation can be difficult, yielding unreliable results in as many as 10 to 20 percent of cases.
Though the pen has not yet gone through clinical trials, early tests suggest the pen is accurate about 96 percent of the time.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in August 2017.