There are more than 100 different diseases that fall under the name of “cancer,” and an even further differentiating factor is that each diagnosis can be as unique as the individual patient. Fortunately, because of progress, advancements, and collaborations, cancer research is going strong, leading to promising developments in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. In fact, between August 1, 2022, and July 31, 2023, the FDA approved 14 new anticancer therapeutics and 12 new uses for already approved cancer treatments.
These progressions and more give hope in the battle against cancer and the number one goal for us all: a cure. Here are a few promising cancer breakthroughs from this past year.
CAR T Cell Therapy
CAR T cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy where Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CAR) are attached to T cells to, as described by the National Cancer Institute, “to enlist and strengthen the power of the patient’s immune system to attack tumors.”
The T cells, also known as T lymphocytes, are white blood cells that help your body’s immune system fight infection and other foreign agents. Researchers found that the receptors in the T cells attached to harmful antigens, like cancer, in an attempt to destroy the disease. In CAR T cell therapy, T cells are extracted from a patient’s blood, and then a lab uses the blood sample to introduce the CAR gene to the T cells. The CAR protein is a synthetic molecule not naturally produced by the body. However, by attaching the CAR gene to T cells and introducing the re-engineered cells to a cancer patient’s body, the CAR T cells multiply and boost the T cells’ ability to recognize and kill cancer cells.
While this therapy was first used more than a decade ago for both child and adult leukemia patients, what makes it promising is that, recently, many long-term studies on the effectiveness of this treatment have seen encouraging results. In one study, CAR T cell therapy was given to many cancer patients who had been diagnosed as “virtually untreatable” after a relapse of leukemia. In following up with the patients, researchers found that almost 62% were in remission after five years. Another smaller study found that patients were in remission for over ten years.
These results and more have opened the door to more clinical trials to test the therapy on other cancers like breast, lung, pancreatic, and prostate cancers, as well as certain autoimmune diseases. Clinical trials are also looking into this treatment being used with other types of immune system cells, like the natural killer (NK) cells.
Future of FLASH-RT
Radiation therapy has been used to treat a variety of cancers for more than 100 years. Because of the severe side effects of radiation, the treatment is usually broken up into smaller doses of radiation, delivered over several minutes, and it can take a cancer patient a few weeks to receive the entire dose needed.
In 2014, a breakthrough study on animals found that extreme exposure to very high radiation levels was just as effective on tumors and had significantly less damage to healthy surrounding tissue. The results were initially met with skepticism; however, almost ten years and more than 30 studies later, the results have been positively replicated, with the first human trial in 2022.
FLASH-RT is when a patient receives powerful bursts of radiation, typically in less than one second. Receiving this intense blast of radiation at the same dose as current radiation therapy shows a reduction in side effects and damage to healthy tissue. This has positive implications for increased combined cancer therapies; for example, a patient who receives FLASH-RT may have a more robust response to immunotherapies because there is less damage to healthy cells from radiation. Additionally, FLASH-RT may be an optional treatment for pediatric cancers because, currently, children are more susceptible to the side effects of radiation therapy. There is potential for higher doses of radiation than initially thought possible, and it could even be a treatment to treat cancers where radiation therapy could be harmful, such as brain, lung, and gastrointestinal cancers.
However, do not expect to see FLASH-RT as a treatment option any time soon. Scientists and physicians still do not understand precisely how and why it works, making understanding the mechanisms and biology of the treatment a priority so it can be a safe and effective treatment for cancer patients. Early-phase clinical trials for skin cancers and bone metastases are underway.
The Cancer Injection
In August 2023, the National Health Service in the United Kingdom offered the world’s first cancer injection, atezolizumab. An immunotherapy drug typically given through an intravenous treatment lasting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, the injection takes about seven minutes to administer. It was estimated that approximately 3,600 UK cancer patients would start the injection treatments for a variety of cancers such as bladder, breast, liver, and lung.
Cancer & AI
Just as AI and machine learning are emerging technologies in many industries, they are also developing trends in the medical profession. When it comes to cancer, AI is being used to detect and diagnose the disease.
At MIT and Mass General Cancer Center, researchers have created Sybil, an AI-learning model trained with complex imaging data of people with lung cancer. As the deadliest cancer, killing more people in the U.S. than the following three deadliest cancers combined, lung cancer is notoriously difficult to screen for and detect early. Scientists provided Sybil with the imaging data of lung cancer patients before and after diagnosis. Using a CT scan, Sybil can predict an individual’s lung cancer risk over the next six years.
Another difficult-to-diagnosis cancer with a low survival rate (less than 20 percent) is pancreatic cancer. Harvard Medical School, along with the University of Copenhagen and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, are studying the effects of using AI to identify patients with a high risk of pancreatic cancer. If pancreatic cancer is detected early, a patient’s survival rate increases to 50 percent.
Other potential uses for AI are to analyze imaging scans to identify cancers where oncology radiologists may not be available. AI chatbots can help answer patient questions and help them navigate through treatments with reminders and scheduling assistance. The critical thing to note is that a treating physician will always have complete oversight of a patient’s health and wellness.
There were many more breakthroughs in the fight against cancer this year, giving us hope for a future that is cancer-free.