Every year, researchers make advances that improve ways to diagnose cancer and give your doctor new tools to fight tumors. The changes mean your treatment may work better and cause fewer side effects.
You may no longer have to blast radiation at large areas of your body, or take toxic drugs that kill healthy cells as well as tumors. New methods make your cancer treatment more targeted and less harmful to your body. Gene research helps doctors spot your personal cancer odds and even pick the best treatment for your tumor.
A new blood test may offer an easier way to spot cancer's footprints. The traditional way to confirm cancer is to remove a sample of your tumor with a needle. Tests can be performed on the tissue obtained from a needle biopsy to see if the tumor has a certain gene mutation caused by a change in the EGFR gene. But now you may have an alternative test to look for an EGFR gene mutation called liquid biopsy. This information will help your doctor determine if certain targeted drug therapies are helpful to treat your lung cancer.
The first liquid biopsy for cancer, cobas EGFR mutation test v2, was approved in June 2016. It's designed for use in people with non-small-cell lung cancer.
How does it work? When a tumor is in your body, it sheds pieces of DNA. This simple blood test can reveal if your tumor may have an EGFR mutation.
To test cancer drugs and understand how tumors harm you, doctors can now use fleshy, 3-D, miniature models of human organs. They're called organoids. They're grown from animal or human cells in a dish in the lab.
Organoids let doctors check how well a cancer drug works and how one of your organs, like your pancreas, may react to it. They can also show how tumors grow in the organ and reveal genetic clues that cells will turn into cancer.
In the future, your doctor may be able to use research on organoids to make a treatment plan that's just for you, or to pick the best cancer drug for your tumor and genes.
Organoids can also help doctors learn what happens in your body before tumor cells turn into cancer. They're now used in research for colorectal, pancreatic, and other types of cancer.
The traditional way to do these tests is to breed a mouse with the right set of genes. But organoids seem to be a cheaper and faster option.
Targeted Drugs and Immunotherapy
Cancer drugs have come a long way in recent years. Some wipe out cancer cells but leave healthy cells alone. Others use your body's own weapons to fight your tumor.
Targeted therapies are more precise than older chemotherapy drugs. They also have fewer side effects.
Monoclonal antibody drugs are one example of this type of treatment. They seek out certain signs on the surface of cancer cells so they hit the right ones. Then they stop the tumor's growth. For instance, bevacizumab (Avastin) stops blood vessels that feed the tumor. Cetuximab (Erbitux) attaches to the cancer cell and blocks a protein that would make it grow.
Small-molecule drugs go inside the cancer cell to block its growth or kill it off. Bortezomib (Velcade), a targeted therapy for myeloma, blocks a way for cancer cells to get rid of their waste proteins. They fill up and die off.
Immunotherapy is a way to boost your immune system -- your body's defense against germs -- to help fight your cancer. Cancer cells can fake out your body's natural defenses with proteins that weaken your immune system reaction. Immunotherapy drugs like ipilimumab (Yervoy) or nivolumab (Opdivo) can block these proteins so your body can fight the cancer better.
Newer immunotherapy drugs are antibodies made in a lab that go into your body, seek out, and destroy cancer. They're called antibody-drug conjugates, or ADCs. This fake antibody is like a smart bomb that looks for signs on the surfaces of cancer cells.
One ADC, ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla), kills breast cancer cells because it delivers a toxic material into them. Rituximab (Rituxan) is used to treat lymphoma and leukemia. I It targets specific proteins on the surface of blood cells and certain cancer cells. The immune system is then stimulated to attack and kill the cancer cells.
Better Scopes and Radiation
You could have a scope instead of surgery to remove hard-to-reach polyps that could later turn into cancer.
Endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR) is a new type of colon scope that's more delicate. Your doctor can inject fluid around your polyp, then carefully shave off the bad tissue. EMR can help you avoid surgery or cuts into your tissue to get the polyp out.
Radiation to fight cancer is also now more targeted and less harmful to the healthy parts of your body.
Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) sends a strong dose of radiation to the site of a breast tumor right after it's removed in surgery. It only lasts about 5 minutes. It's precise, so it can go right to the area where your tumor was and not harm skin or other organs.
Normally, you’d have sessions of radiation over as many as 5 – 6 weeks to kill leftover cancer cells.. Some people may be able to just have one dose of IORT to wipe out these cells. Others may be able to shorten the total time for their treatment.
IORT may help some women with breast cancer avoid surgery that removes their nipple and areola, the small area around the nipple.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is another treatment that's more targeted. It can attack small tumors with a precise blast.
SBRT can also cut back on the number of treatments you need. It uses image-guidance technology and four-dimensional scans to pinpoint the tumor target.
More advances are expected in the years ahead that will give you even more treatment choices.