Real Answers on Cancer, Finally?

The discoveries announced in the field of cancer over the past week have been overwhelming. New studies, treatments and trends always make headlines when the American Society of Clinical Oncology convenes — but this year, the world’s top researchers and clinicians are sharing what appear to be incredible strides toward an elusive cure.

The vaccine would be less invasive and could be modified to target various types of cancer.

Two of the more notable developments just announced: a blood test to detect cancer, and a vaccine that uses a patient’s own body to fight it. They may sound far off, but the developments are big news.

While we may not be able to vaccinate people against cancer as we do with the flu, a new vaccine holds promise to battle the disease. It is given to existing cancer patients to trigger their immune systems to fight tumors — and it may be able to do that wherever the tumor is.

This form of immunotherapy — a field in cancer research gaining traction — has been tested in mice along with early human trials. That said, it may not be too far off until we could see it as a mainstream treatment.

The vaccine activates the immune system with “drastic regressions — and even cures” of multiple types of cancer in animals, said Dr. Joshua Brody, director of the lymphoma immunotherapy program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. That gives us a “reason to hope it may also cause cancer regressions” in people, he told LifeZette.

Until now, cancer-targeting immune cells have been genetically engineered in labs, then injected back into patients. It is an expensive, time-consuming process. The vaccine would be a lot less invasive and could be modified to target various types of cancer.

Once injected with the vaccine, the mice were able to fight “aggressively growing” tumors, the study found.

How the vaccine works: A patient’s own ribonucleic acid (RNA) — a nucleic acid present in all living cells — is extracted from the cancer cells and embedded in nanoparticles to make them appear like a virus or bacteria. The RNA — coated in a fatty membrane — has a slightly negative charge, so it is attracted to immune cells in the spleen, lymph nodes, and bone marrow. They then team up to fight cancer cells.

Once injected with the vaccine, the mice were able to fight “aggressively growing” tumors, the study found. The caveat: It was only tested in three humans — a minuscule sample size — to see if it was safe; it didn’t gauge efficacy. The next step is to see if it is enough to destroy their tumors.

“If not, we have several obvious ways to combine this therapy with other immunotherapies to make it even more powerful, so that could happen quickly,” Brody added.

Researchers will wait a year for follow-up results; they also hope to begin a larger trial to test the vaccine in people. The report was not part of the information shared at ASCO, but rather published in the journal Nature and led by researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany.

The technology is interesting, said Dr. Jill O'Donnell-Tormey, CEO and director of scientific affairs of the Cancer Research Institute in New York. While she wouldn't call it a "universal" vaccine (as it has been hailed elsewhere in the media), she said the platform could be universal for multiple cancer types because it can be customized with multiple antigens of choice.

"The technology makes a lot of sense to me," O'Donnell-Tormey said. "It could have a lot of usefulness."

The Blood Test
Something else that could prove useful is a simple new blood test that could help detect cancer.

Researchers from Guardant said 15,000 patients took part in a "liquid biopsy" study. The tool pinpoints DNA fragments shed by tumors into the bloodstream. It then sequences the DNA to provide a picture of which mutations are in the tumor.

When compared to blood results from actual tumors within six months of the procedure, there was a 98 percent agreement on the mutations present. This means it can better target treatments to specific mutations.

Related: Yes, Cell Phones Can Cause Cancer

Traditional biopsies take cells from one part of a tumor — but cells can be different in other parts of it. So the biopsy is not always an accurate representation of what's in the tumor. Biopsies are also often not practical, because tumors change over time. The hope is the new blood test would more easily and cost-effectively show changes in a tumor to further customize treatment.

Doctors do not think at this point the blood test will replace traditional biopsies, but it could replace "every biopsy after that," Helmy Eltoukhy, co-founder and CEO of Guardant, said in TIME.

Other Horizons
Another study out of ASCO found that women taking aromatase inhibitors (estrogen-suppressing drugs) for 10 years instead of 5 years, as is commonly the case, saw a lower rate of recurrence as well as a decreased risk for the disease to develop in their other breast.

Aromatase inhibitors stop estrogen from being produced, which can stop production of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer cells.

Major developments were also announced in multiple myeloma, lung, and head and neck cancers.

Last Modified: June 7, 2016, 9:08 am

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