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4 Reasons Cancer Isn't As Scary As It Used to Be

Promising therapies are making cancer treatment less painful and more effective

By Beth Levine and

(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.)

In the last decade, advances in cancer treatment have exploded — more than 60 anticancer drugs have been given Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and genotyping tumors has led to personalized, targeted regimens. Here is just a sampling of the current leaps forward that have doctors everywhere talking about a whole new world in cancer care:

1. Immunotherapy

In recent studies of immunotherapy, white blood cells — known as T-cells — are extracted, modified and then reinjected into the body. The modification makes it difficult for the cancer cells to defend against the body’s immune system. In a study done at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, 94 percent of participants with acute lymphoblastic leukemia became symptom-free. In another study, more than 50 percent of patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma became symptom-free, while 80 percent had significant improvement.

“These latest results show immunotherapy is becoming a pillar of cancer therapy,” says Dr. Stanley Riddell, an immunotherapy researcher and oncologist. According to the American Cancer Society, “Newer types of immune treatments are now being studied, and they’ll impact how we treat cancer in the future.” Also in the years to come, researchers hope to develop an immunotherapy vaccine that can prevent cancer.

Pharmaceutical company AstroZeneca is also working on immunotherapy — it has just received FDA Breakthrough Therapy* designation on a new drug, Durvalumab, that enlists the body’s immune response against metastatic bladder cancer. The drug is showing great promise in stopping bladder cancer’s tumors from evading the natural immune response. It is also being tested on head and neck, gastric, pancreatic, liver and blood cancers.

*Meaning, the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies

2. Advancement in Immunotherapy Delivery

Fine-tuning the delivery of immunotherapy, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have developed a patch embedded with microneedles that delivers immunotherapy treatment directly to a melanoma skin cancer. In animal studies, the technique targeted melanoma better than other immunotherapy treatments. “Local treatment is safer because of less toxicity,” says Chao Wang, post-doc fellow, Joint Biomedical Engineering Department. North Carolina State University | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

3. Personalized Therapy With Genetic Profiling

The discovery of genetic profiling continues to reap big rewards. A recent study from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute looked at patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) whose leukemic cells showed a certain genetic mutation. (Approximately 30 percent of AML patients have this mutation.) Researchers found that that those who were treated with chemotherapy plus the experimental drug midostaurin had fared much better than the group that got chemotherapy plus a placebo: 23 percent reduction in risk of dying overall and fewer events of relapse, death or failure to go into remission. After four years, 51 percent in the midostaurin group survived as opposed to 44 percent on placebo.

“Those that followed the new regimen followed by stem cell transplant did even better,” says Dr. Richard Stone, chief of staff and director, Adult Leukemia Program.


4. Less Invasive Treatments

Blood tests Normally, a patient would need to undergo an invasive biopsy to get a tissue sample for genetic profiling; however, lung cancer researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have discovered that blood tests at times can replace more invasive procedures to determine best treatment for lung cancer. Why are blood tests preferable?

  • Results come in a matter of days instead of weeks.
  • Positive results have been 100 percent accurate; when it’s negative, you still need to biopsy, because not every tumor sheds detectable DNA into the blood.
  • If lung cancer has become resistant, the test can tell that the lung cancer tumor has mutated, needing different kind of treatment.

“We envision a new paradigm for a genetic testing of tumors. If your doctor is recommending a biopsy for cancer genetics, it may be that a blood test can help,” says Dr. Geoffrey Oxnard, thoracic oncologist and lung cancer researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

More precise chemotherapy Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City just announced a new, minimally invasive treatment for liver cancer by injecting luminescent chemotherapy-filled beads directly into the tumor. This allows doctors to confirm that the beads are properly placed and to adjust them, if need be. In the past, there was no way to know, and this sometimes meant a patient had to undergo a repeat treatment.

“This is what we call precision targeting of tumors," says Dr. Edward Kim, Director of Interventional Oncology and associate professor of radiology and surgery in the division of interventional radiology at The Mount Sinai Hospital.

What To Make Of All This?

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer, don’t stop asking and reading about new therapies. There are new ones coming down the pike all the time.

Beth Levine Read More
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