This Monday 4th February, people and organisations across the world will come together in support of World Cancer Day. As it stands, over 9.6 million people each year die from cancer – that’s more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. If we don’t act now, it’s predicted that by 2030 cancer deaths could rise to 13 million.
But the good news is that one third of cancer cases can be prevented, while another third can be cured if detected early and treated properly. It’s thought that 3.7 million lives could be saved every year with the implementation of resource-appropriate strategies on prevention and early detection and treatment. Thanks to investment in research and innovation, there have already been extraordinary breakthroughs in medicines, diagnostics and scientific knowledge.
With this in mind, we’re taking a look at some of these breakthroughs, and looking at what we can expect for the future of cancer treatments.
We know that the immune system works by destroying invaders such as bacteria and viruses, and it can also seek out and destroy cancers as they form. However, cancer can also grow despite the body’s effort to stop it, as the cancer cells develop new ways to remain undetected by the immune system.
Immunotherapy can help the cancer to attack the cancer cells by preventing it from staying undetected and boosting immune response against cancer. There are several immunotherapy treatments in the works right now, including:
- Checkpoint inhibitors: these block the checkpoints on cancer cells, so that your body’s T cells can find the cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors can treat several types of cancer such as bladder, colorectal, head and neck, kidney, liver, lung, lymphoma, melanoma and stomach
- Monoclonal antibodies: these target antigens on cancer cells, which can help your immune system to target the cancer. Monoclonal antibodies can also be attached to toxic substances which will destroy the cancer cells
- Adoptive cell transfer: using the cells from your blood or tumour, they are then modified to be able to bind to and attack cancer cells. CAR Tcell therapy is one such type and it’s been approved to treat some types of leukaemia and lymphoma
- Immune system modulators: these boost your body’s immune response – an example is cytokines, which control immune cells’ growth and activity. These include interleukins, which help immune cells to communicate with each other, and interferons which activate cancerfighting immune cells
- Cancer vaccines: vaccines are available to treat certain types of cancer – sipuleucelT treats prostate cancer that has spread, while preventative vaccines are available to guard against HPV and Hepatitis B. Further vaccines against breast, lung and brain cancers are currently being studied in clinical trials
Cancer research has become much more personalised, with gene research driving this trend. We now know that one form of cancer can come in many genetic variations. Therefore, genomics is giving doctors more insight into how certain cancers will act and how best to treat it. By identifying mutations in certain cancer genes and prescribing drugs that zero in on certain genes, proteins or blood vessels, doctors will be better equipped to diagnose cancers, predict outcomes, and determine which drugs and treatments will have the best success.
Gene-based treatments work based on specific gene changes in the cancer, for example people with melanoma due to the BRAF gene mutation will respond best to the drugs vemurafenib, dabrafenib and encorafenib, as they stop the overproduction of the BRAF protein caused by the mutation. Similarly, breast cancer caused by the HER2 gene can be treated with trastuzumab.
Another type of gene-targeted therapy is the angiogenesis inhibitor, which works by blocking the growth of new blood vessels that tumours need to survive. As new treatments are studied based on gene mutations in cancer cells, it’s likely that we’ll see even more targeted gene therapies in the future.
The more that scientists know, the more progress they can make in reducing risk factors, increasing prevention and improving cancer diagnosis, prevention, treatment and care – and that’s why it’s so important to support World Cancer Day and the works that are currently in progress.