Cancer is a common and extremely variable disease that can begin almost anywhere in the body and can easily spread from tissue to tissue. Because of this, cancer is notoriously difficult to treat and currently impossible to cure. However, each year, the five-year survival rates for cancer continue to increase, thanks to massive progress in research efforts and advancements in medical technology.
Currently, many areas of cancer research are showing promise in treating or even preventing cancer.
Within the last decade, scientists have begun using immunotherapy to train a person’s own immune system to attack their tumors. Most notably, CAR-T cell therapy has excited many medical professionals. In this therapy, a lab technician takes a person’s T cells and then adds a new gene called a chimeric antigen receptor. This allows the T cells to bind to proteins in cancer cells, destroying them.
While very effective, this treatment is still extremely expensive and may not lead to long-term survival. Yet, doctors note that many of the cases using CAR-T cell therapies involve aggressive lymphomas that could otherwise be fatal.
Radiation therapy has long been a cornerstone of cancer treatment. Roughly half of all people with cancer still receive radiation treatments today and it has largely remained the same for decades. Though this is effective, sending radiation through various tissues of the body to target tumors often causes collateral damage.
Radiopharmaceuticals are drugs—often pills or injectable fluids—that avoid this by delivering radiation therapy directly to the cancer cells. Studies have shown a huge effect and indicate these drugs could dramatically cut down on both short-term risks and long-term side effects of radiation therapy.
Rarely, cancers may spread to the peritoneum—a membrane that lines the walls within the abdomen and attaches to the various abdominal and pelvic organs. If this happens, treatment options are limited because the area is so close to the organs and receives little blood. Pressurized intraperitoneal aerosol chemotherapy (PIPAC) aims to change that by delivering chemotherapy directly into the abdomen and the peritoneum.
PIPAC is a minimally invasive treatment involving a nebulizer pen and a high-pressure injector that pushes a mist of medication to the organs. After about 30 minutes, a technician vacuums the particles out. Just one treatment a week for six weeks provides notable improvements with minimal side effects.
Researchers have noticed that a greater number of young people are developing colon and rectal cancer. Traditionally, the treatment for aggressive forms of these cancers involves radiation therapy targeting the pelvic region. However, this has notable side effects, such as impaired fertility. Uterine transposition is a procedure where a surgeon temporarily moves the uterus upward to the abdominal wall, protecting it from radiation and preserving fertility.
Thanks to robotic assistance, this surgery is minimally invasive and has shown few side effects. As a result, doctors are optimistic about the use of uterine transposition in the future, though they note that the technique could use refining.
Recent events have placed a massive spotlight on mRNA vaccines. Messenger RNA, widely known as mRNA, is a molecule that carries cellular instructions for creating proteins. Each vaccine contains mRNA molecules that train the body to produce proteins similar to those of viruses or tumor cells, allowing the immune system to prepare to fight them. This method of cancer treatment is extremely customizable, enabling an individualized treatment path.
These vaccines have led to tumor shrinkage and even complete tumor disappearance in recent studies.
In the 1980s, scientists found that a mutated gene, HER2, could cause excessive cell growth and division, like that of cancer. Further research efforts then linked HER2 to some forms of breast cancer growth. This finding was revolutionary as it allowed the scientists to specifically target HER2 genes, rather than using a more broad treatment option.
Drugs that target the HER2 gene have improved breast cancer survival rates by over 30%. Researchers hope that the science behind discovering and isolating this gene could be useful in finding the genes responsible for other cancers, leading to a similar effect.
A traditional biopsy is an important part of many diagnostic procedures. Through a small surgery, doctors take a small piece of tissue from a tumor or potentially cancerous region and then test it in a lab. On the other hand, liquid biopsies can detect cancer cells and circulating tumor DNA and provide information about the cancer with just a blood sample—no surgery necessary. This allows medical professionals to better identify how a cancer is spreading and how to target it.
In some cases, this may allow for faster cancer diagnoses, as well as enabling more accurate predictions about the disease’s progression.
In addition to training humans’ immune cells to target cancer, some scientists are teaching viruses to do the work for us instead. The first FDA-approved oncolytic virus stems from the herpes simplex virus type 1. While it can infect both cancer and normal cells, the normal cells can easily fight the virus.
Meanwhile, the cancer cells cannot fight the invading virus, causing them to burst and die. This then spreads the virus further, ensuring the cancer cells cannot survive. Usually, doctors begin this treatment by injecting the virus directly into a tumor.
Improving cancer detection is the key to finding cancer when it is at its most treatable, early in its progression. Advancements in molecular science have led to identifying certain biomarkers, but it can still be difficult to find signs of cancer before it becomes dangerous. Some radiologists and other doctors are utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) programs to find these hidden cancers.
By training the AI models with plenty of data of early cancers, the AI can then find even the smallest sign of cancer in new images. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what AI could do for the medical field, but it is one of its most important uses.
Scientists are creating, testing, and applying some extremely novel and creative approaches to immunotherapy. One of the most futuristic involves nanotechnology. Nanoparticles are extremely small particles that are smaller than 100 nanometers in size—roughly one-billionth of a meter or between 10 and a thousand times smaller than a single bacterium. These impossibly tiny particles can carry medications, improve imaging, or even train the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Because nanoparticles are so small, they can last longer in the blood and easily accumulate inside tumors.
While nanoparticles still require further research, they could overcome many of the challenges of current cancer treatments.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.