by Victoria Masterson
Cancer kills around 10 million people a year and is a leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization. Breast, lung and colon cancer are among the most common. Death rates from cancer were falling before the pandemic. But COVID-19 caused a big backlog in diagnosis and treatment. There is some good news, however. Medical advances are accelerating the battle against cancer. Here are eight recent developments:
1. The seven-minute cancer treatment jab
England’s National Health Service (NHS) is to be the first in the world to make use of a cancer treatment injection, which takes just seven minutes to administer, rather than the current time of up to an hour to have the same drug via intravenous infusion.
This will not only speed up the treatment process for patients, but also free up time for medical professionals. The drug, Atezolizumab or Tecentriq, treats cancers including lung and breast, and it’s expected most of the 3,600 NHS patients in England currently receiving it intravenously will now switch to the jab.
2. Precision oncology
Precision oncology is the “best new weapon to defeat cancer”, the chief executive of Genetron Health, Sizhen Wang, says in a blog for the World Economic Forum. This involves studying the genetic makeup and molecular characteristics of cancer tumours in individual patients.
The precision oncology approach identifies changes in cells that might be causing the cancer to grow and spread. Personalized treatments can then be developed. Because precision oncology treatments are targeted – as opposed to general treatments like chemotherapy – it can mean less harm to healthy cells and fewer side effects as a result.
3. Artificial intelligence fights cancer
In India, World Economic Forum partners are using emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to transform cancer care. For example, AI-based risk profiling can help screen for common cancers like breast cancer, leading to early diagnosis.
AI technology can also be used to analyze X-rays to identify cancers in places where imaging experts might not be available. These are two of 18 cancer interventions that The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution India, a collaboration with the Forum, hopes to accelerate.
4. Greater prediction capabilities
Lung cancer kills more people in the US yearly than the next three deadliest cancers combined. It’s notoriously hard to detect the early stages of the disease with X-rays and scans alone. However, MIT scientists have developed an AI learning model to predict a person’s likelihood of developing lung cancer up to six years in advance via a low-dose CT scan.
Trained using complex imaging data, ‘Sybil’ can forecast both short and long-term lung cancer risk. According to a recent study. “We found that while we as humans couldn’t quite see where the cancer was, the model could still have some predictive power as to which lung would eventually develop cancer,” said co-author Jeremy Wohlwend.
5. Clues in the DNA of cancer
At Cambridge University Hospitals in England, the DNA of cancer tumours from 12,000 patients is revealing new clues about the causes of cancer, scientists say. By analyzing genomic data, oncologists are identifying different mutations that have contributed to each person’s cancer.
For example, exposure to smoking or UV light, or internal malfunctions in cells. These are like “fingerprints in a crime scene”, the scientists say – and more of them are being found. “We uncovered 58 new mutational signatures and broadened our knowledge of cancer,” says study author Dr Andrea Degasperi, from Cambridge’s Department of Oncology.
6. Liquid and synthetic biopsies
Biopsies are the main way doctors diagnose cancer – but the process is invasive and involves removing a section of tissue from the body, sometimes surgically, so it can be examined in a laboratory. Liquid biopsies are an easier and less invasive solution where blood samples can be tested for signs of cancer. Synthetic biopsies are another innovation that can force cancer cells to reveal themselves during the earliest stages of the disease.
7. CAR-T cell therapy
A treatment that makes immune cells hunt down and kill cancer cells was recently declared a success for leukemia patients. The treatment, called CAR-T-cell therapy, involves removing and genetically altering immune cells, called T cells, from cancer patients. The altered cells then produce proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These recognize and can destroy cancer cells.
In the journal Nature, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania announced that two of the first people treated with CAR-T-cell therapy were still in remission 12 years on.
8. Fighting pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. It is rarely diagnosed before it starts to spread and has a survival rate of less than 5% over five years. At the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, scientists developed a test that identified 95% of early pancreatic cancers in a study. The research, published in Nature Communications Medicine, explains how biomarkers in extracellular vesicles – particles that regulate communication between cells – were used to detect pancreatic, ovarian and bladder cancer at stages I and II.