Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by unusual cell growth. These cells can invade different tissues of the body, leading to serious health problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease.
Is there a cure for cancer? If so, how close are we? To answer these questions, it’s important to understand the difference between a cure and remission:
- A cure eliminates all traces of cancer from the body and ensures it won’t come back.
- Remission means there are few to no signs of cancer in the body.
- Complete remission means there aren’t any detectable signs of symptoms of cancer.
Still, cancer cells can remain in the body, even after complete remission. This means the cancer can come back. When this happens, it’s usually within the first five years after treatment.
Some doctors use the term “cured” when referring to cancer that doesn’t come back within five years. But cancer can still come back after five years, so it’s never truly cured.
Currently, there’s no true cure for cancer. But recent advances in medicine and technology are helping move us closer than ever to a cure.
Read on to learn more about these emerging treatments and what they could mean for the future of cancer treatment.
Cancer immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer cells.
The immune system is made up of a variety of organs, cells, and tissues that help the body fight off foreign invaders, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
But cancer cells aren’t foreign invaders, so the immune system may need some help identifying them. There are several ways of providing this help.
When you think of vaccines, you probably think of them in the context of preventing infectious diseases, like measles, tetanus, and the flu.
But some vaccines can help prevent — or even treat — certain types of cancer. For example, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine protects against many types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
Researchers have also been working to develop a vaccine that helps the immune system directly fight cancer cells. These cells often have molecules on their surfaces that aren’t present in regular cells. Administering a vaccine containing these molecules can help the immune system better recognize and destroy cancer cells.
There’s only one vaccine currently approved to treat cancer. It’s called Sipuleucel-T. It’s used to treat advanced prostate cancer that hasn’t responded to other treatments.
This vaccine is unique because it’s a customized vaccine. Immune cells are removed from the body and sent to a laboratory where they’re modified to be able to recognize prostate cancer cells. Then they’re injected back into your body, where they help the immune system find and destroy cancer cells.
Researchers are currently working on developing and testing new vaccines to both prevent and treat certain types of cancer.
T cells are a kind of immune cell. They destroy foreign invaders detected by your immune system. T-cell therapy involves removing these cells and sending them to a lab. The cells that seem most responsive against cancer cells are separated and grown in large quantities. These T cells are then injected back into your body.
A specific type of T-cell therapy is called CAR T-cell therapy. During treatment, T cells are extracted and modified to add a receptor to their surface. This helps the T cells better recognize and destroy cancer cells when they’re reintroduced into your body.
CAR T-cell therapy is currently being used to treat several types of cancer, such as adult non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Clinical trials are in progress to determine how T-cell therapies might be able to treat other types of cancer.
Antibodies are proteins produced by B cells, another type of immune cell. They’re able to recognize specific targets, called antigens, and bind to them. Once an antibody binds to an antigen, T cells can find and destroy the antigen.
Monoclonal antibody therapy involves making large quantities of antibodies that recognize antigens that tend to be found on the surfaces of cancer cells. They’re then injected into the body, where they can help find and neutralize cancer cells.
There are many types of monoclonal antibodies that have been developed for cancer therapy. Some examples include:
- Alemtuzumab. This antibody binds to a specific protein on leukemia cells, targeting them for destruction. It’s used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
- Ibritumomab tiuxetan. This antibody has a radioactive particle attached to it, allowing radioactivity to be delivered directly to the cancer cells when the antibody binds. It’s used to treat some types of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- Ado-trastuzumab emtansine. This antibody has a chemotherapy drug attached to it. Once the antibody attaches, it releases the drug into the cancer cells. It’s used to treat some types of breast cancer.
- Blinatumomab. This actually contains two different monoclonal antibodies. One attaches to the cancer cells, while the other attaches to immune cells. This brings immune and cancer cells together, allowing the immune system to attack the cancer cells. It’s used to treat acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors
Immune checkpoint inhibitors boost the immune system’s response to cancer. The immune system is designed to attach foreign invaders without destroying other cells in the body. Remember, cancer cells don’t appear as foreign to the immune system.
Usually, checkpoint molecules on the surfaces of cells prevent T cells from attacking them. Checkpoint inhibitors help T cells avoid these checkpoints, allowing them to better attack cancer cells.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors are used to treat a variety of cancers, including lung cancer and skin cancer.
Gene therapy is a form of treating disease by editing or altering the genes within the cells of the body. Genes contain the code that produces many different kinds of proteins. Proteins, in turn, affect how cells grow, behave, and communicate with each other.
In the case of cancer, genes become defective or damaged, leading to some cells to grow out of control and form a tumor. The goal of cancer gene therapy is to treat disease by replacing or modifying this damaged genetic information with healthy code.
Researchers are still studying most gene therapies in labs or clinical trials.
Gene editing is a process for adding, removing, or modifying genes. It’s also called genome editing. In the context of cancer treatment, a new gene would be introduced into cancer cells. This would either cause the cancer cells to die off or prevent them from growing.
Research is still in the early stages, but it’s shown promise. So far, most of the research around gene editing has involved animals or isolated cells, rather than human cells. But the research is continuing to advance and evolve.
The CRISPR system is an example of gene editing that’s getting a lot of attention. This system allows researchers to target specific DNA sequences using an enzyme and a modified piece of nucleic acid. The enzyme removes the DNA sequence, allowing it to be replaced with a customized sequence. It’s kind of like using the “find and replace” function in a word processing program.
The first clinical trial protocol to use CRISPR was recently reviewed. In the prospective clinical trial, the investigators propose to use CRISPR technology to modify T cells in people with advanced myeloma, melanoma, or sarcoma.
Many types of viruses destroy their host cell as part of their life cycle. This makes viruses an attractive potential treatment for cancer. Virotherapy is the use of viruses to selectively kill cancer cells.
The viruses used in virotherapy are called oncolytic viruses. They’re genetically modified to only target and replicate within cancer cells.
Experts believe that when an oncolytic virus kills a cancer cell, cancer-related antigens are released. Antibodies can then bind to these antigens and trigger an immune system response.
While researchers are looking at the use of several viruses for this type of treatment, only one has been approved so far. It’s called T-VEC (talimogene laherparepvec). It’s a modified herpes virus. It’s used to treat melanoma skin cancer that can’t be surgically removed.
The body naturally produces hormones, which act as messengers to the tissues and cells of your body. They help regulate many of the body’s functions.
Hormone therapy involves using a medication to block the production of hormones. Some cancers are sensitive to the levels of specific hormones. Changes in these levels can affect the growth and survival of these cancer cells. Lowering or blocking the amount of a necessary hormone can slow the growth of these types of cancers.
Hormone therapy is sometimes used to treat breast cancer, prostate cancer, and uterine cancer.
Nanoparticles are very tiny structures. They’re smaller than cells. Their size allows them to move throughout the body and interact with different cells and biological molecules.
Nanoparticles are promising tools for the treatment of cancer, particularly as a method for delivering drugs to a tumor site. This can help make cancer treatment more effective while minimizing side effects.
While that type of nanoparticle therapy is still largely in the development stage, several nanoparticle-based delivery systems are approved for the treatment of various types of cancer. Other cancer treatments that use nanoparticle technology are currently in clinical trials.
The world of cancer treatment is constantly growing and changing. Stay up to date with these resources:
- Cancer Currents. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) maintains this site. It’s regularly updated with articles about the latest cancer research and therapies.
- NCI Clinical Trial Database. This is a searchable database of information about NCI-supported clinical trials.
- The Cancer Research Institute blog. This is a blog by the Cancer Research Institute. It’s regularly updated with articles about the latest research breakthroughs.
- The American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society offers up-to-date information on cancer screening guidelines, available treatments, and research updates.
- ClinicalTrials.gov. For current and open clinical trials around the world, check out the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s database of privately and publically funded studies.