Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by unusual cell growth. These cells can invade different body tissues, leading to serious health problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease. But is there a cure for it?
Currently, there’s no true cure for cancer. However, recent advances in medication and technology have paved the way for newer cancer treatments, helping move us closer to a cure.
Below, we’ll explore these emerging treatments and what they could mean for the future of cancer treatment. Keep reading to discover more.
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:
Cure. A cure means that treatment has eliminated all traces of cancer from the body and has ensured that it won’t come back.
Remission. Remission means that signs of cancer have reduced or gone away entirely. A person who is in remission may have few to no signs of cancer cells in their body. Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of remission:
A complete remission, which means there aren’t any detectable signs of cancer.
A partial remission, which means the cancer has shrunk, but the cancer cells are still detectable.
While some doctors may use the term “cured” when referring to cancer that doesn’t return within 5 years, it’s still possible for it to come back, meaning it’s never truly cured. Because of this, most doctors will use the term “in remission” instead of “cured.”
In this article, we’ll be exploring new and emerging cancer treatments. These newer treatments may be used outside of or along with more conventional cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Let’s dive in.
Cancer immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps the immune system fight cancer cells.
The immune system is made up of various organs, cells, and tissues that help the body fight off outside invaders, including:
However, cancer cells are a part of us and aren’t seen by our bodies as invaders. Because of this, the immune system may need help identifying them. There are several ways to provide this help.
When you think of vaccines, you probably think of them in the context of preventing infectious diseases, like COVID-19, measles, and the flu. However, some vaccines can help prevent or even treat certain types of cancer.
For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects against many types of HPVs that can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, and throat. Additionally, the hepatitis B vaccine helps to prevent a chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus, which can lead to liver cancer.
Bacillus Calmette-Geurin (BCG) is a vaccine that’s normally used for tuberculosis but can also be a part of bladder cancer treatment. In this treatment, BCG is supplied directly to the bladder by a catheter that stimulates immune cells to attack bladder cancer cells.
Researchers have also been trying to make a vaccine that helps the immune system fight cancer directly. Cancer cells usually have molecules on their surface that aren’t on healthy cells. A vaccine containing these molecules may help the immune system better recognize and destroy cancer cells.
So far, there’s only one vaccine that’s been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat cancer. It’s called Sipuleucel-T (Provenge) and is used to treat advanced prostate cancer that hasn’t responded to other treatments.
This vaccine is unique because it’s customized. Immune cells are removed from the body and sent to a laboratory, where they’re modified to recognize prostate cancer cells. They’re then injected back into the body, where they help the immune system find and destroy cancer cells.
According to a 2021 review, researchers are currently working on developing and testing new vaccines to treat certain types of cancer. These vaccines are sometimes tested in combination with established cancer drugs, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Some examples of cancers with vaccines that have been or are currently being tested are:
non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)
T-cells are a kind of immune cell. They work to destroy outside invaders detected by your immune system.
T-cell therapy involves removing these cells from the body 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.
Generally speaking, CAR T-cell therapy is recommended when other cancer treatments haven’t been effective. While it can be beneficial for people with cancers that are hard to treat, it’s also associated with some potentially serious side effects.
One of these is called cytokine release syndrome (CRS) This happens when the newly reintroduced T-cells release a large number of chemicals called cytokines into the bloodstream. This can send the immune system into overdrive.
Clinical trials are in progress to see how this therapy might be able to treat other types of cancers, including solid tumors, which can be harder for CAR T-cells to reach.
Researchers are also studying better ways to manage the side effects associated with CAR T-cell therapy.
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 (mAb) therapy involves making large amounts of antibodies that recognize antigens that are usually found on the surface of cancer cells. They’re then injected into the body, where they can help find and neutralize cancer cells.
There are many types of mAbs that have been developed for cancer therapy. Some examples include:
Alemtuzumab (Campath). This mAb binds selectively to a protein that is highly expressed on the surface of both T and B cell lymphocytes. By targeting this specific protein, both the T and B cells are marked for destruction, which helps your body get rid of any cancer-containing cells.
Trastuzumab (Herceptin). This mAb is specific for HER2, a protein found on some breast cancer cells and promotes their growth. Trastuzumab binds to HER2, which blocks its activity. This stops or slows the growth of breast cancer cells.
Blinatumomab (Blincyto). This therapy is considered a T-Cell therapy and a mAb, since it contains two different mAbs. One attaches to the cancer cells, while the other attaches to immune cells. This brings the two cell types together and allows the immune system to attack the cancer cells. It’s currently used to treat acute lymphocytic leukemia, and similar drugs are being developed for diseases like myeloma.
Monoclonal antibodies can also be attached to radioactive particles or chemotherapy drugs. These are called conjugated mAbs. Because the antibodies are specific for antigens on cancer cells, they allow these cancer-fighting substances to be delivered directly to cancer cells.
A couple of examples of conjugated mAbs include:
Ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin). This mAb 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 (Kadcyla). 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.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors
Gene therapy is a way of treating diseases by editing or altering the genes within the cells of your body. Genes contain the code that produces many different kinds of proteins. Proteins affect how cells grow, behave, and communicate with each other.
In the case of cancer, genes become defective or damaged, leading 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 the process of 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 has shown promise. So far, most research around gene editing has involved animals or isolated cells rather than human cells. Still, the research continues to advance and evolve.
The CRISPR system is an example of gene editing that’s getting a lot of attention. This system lets researchers 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.
So far, some phase 1 clinical trials that use CRISPR technology to modify T-cells in people with advanced cancer have been done. Phase 1 clinical trials mainly evaluate the safety and feasibility of a new treatment.
One 2020 trial involved 3 people with advanced, refractory cancer, which is cancer that’s stopped responding to treatment. In all 3 people, the changes introduced by CRISPR were stable for at least 9 months. No significant side effects were observed.
Another 2020 trial of T-cells modified with CRISPR involved 12 people with advanced, refractory NSCLC. While the changes introduced by CRISPR didn’t last long, the reported side effects weren’t serious. CRISPR also didn’t seem to impact off-target sites in the genome.
Many types of viruses destroy their host cell as a natural part of their life cycle. This makes viruses a good 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.
According to the NCI, when an oncolytic virus kills a cancer cell, cancer-related antigens are released. Antibodies can then bind to these antigens and trigger an immune 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 talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC) and is a modified herpes virus. It’s used to treat melanoma skin cancer that can’t be surgically removed.
Researchers continue to study oncolytic viruses as a way to treat cancer. A 2020 review looked at studies on oncolytic viruses between the years 2000 and 2020. A total of 97 different clinical trials were found, most of them phase 1.
The most common types of cancers targeted with virotherapy were melanoma and digestive cancers. A modified adenovirus was the most frequently studied oncolytic virus. The reviewers noted that only 7 of the studies reported on the levels of tumor-specific immune response.
The body naturally produces hormones, which act as messengers to the different tissues and cells of your body. They help regulate many of your body’s functions.
Some cancers are sensitive to the levels of specific hormones. This is why hormone therapy uses medication to block the production of hormones.
Changes in hormone levels can affect the growth and survival of some types of cancer cells. Lowering or blocking the amount of a necessary hormone can slow the growth of these types of cancers.
Nanoparticles are tiny structures that are 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 cancer treatment, especially when it comes to drug delivery.
Potential uses for nanoparticles in drug delivery include systems that can target cancer cells or cross tissue barriers, such as the blood-brain barrier. This may help enhance the effectiveness of cancer treatments while minimizing side effects.
Nanoparticles may also be able to affect the immune system. One 2020 study used a nanoparticle-based system in mice to train immune cells to mount a response against cancer cells. This approach also helped make treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors more effective.
While the types of nanoparticle therapy we’ve just discussed are still in the development stage, several nanoparticle-based delivery systems are approved by the FDA for cancer treatments. These systems use nanoparticles to more effectively deliver cancer drugs.
Some examples of cancer drugs that may use a nanoparticle-based delivery system are those for paclitaxel (Abraxane) and doxorubicin (Doxil).
Other cancer treatments that use nanoparticle technology are currently in clinical trials. You can find a list of active nanoparticle clinical trials for cancer treatment on the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Clinical Trials website. Many different cancers are represented, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer.
There’s currently no definite cure for cancer. Even if a person has achieved complete remission, it’s still possible for their cancer to return sometime in the future. Nevertheless, researchers continue to work hard to develop newer, more effective cancer treatments.
Some treatments that are already in use alongside more conventional cancer therapies include hormone therapy and immunotherapies like mAbs, CAR T-cell therapy, and cancer vaccines.
Other key research areas include gene editing, especially using the CRISPR system, as well as nanoparticles. While these technologies are still in their early development stages, initial studies and trials have shown promising results.
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