While no cure exists for the many forms of cancer, researchers evaluate new treatments every day. Many have promising results. Scientists hope that cancer-focused treatments will eventually become a regular part of your physician’s toolbox. Here’s a sampling of new ways doctors are fighting cancer and what may be on the horizon.
Already being used to help treat some cancers, immunotherapy aims the power of your body’s natural defense system (the immune system) to attack the dangerous cells. Cancer vaccines are one form of immunotherapy—yet, rather than prevent cancer, these vaccines combat the existing disease.
So what’s immunotherapy’s goal? Immunotherapy drugs can trigger the body to launch its own attack against cancer. The powerful immune system recognizes cancer cells and produces antibodies to destroy them before the cells become full-blown tumors. These drugs can treat whole areas of the body or isolated cancer cells without harming healthy cells in the area.
Doctors make the vaccines with cells from the patient’s own tumor or from the lab. Researchers are also testing vaccines containing antigens, man-made substances that trigger the immune system to produce antibodies.
Monoclonal antibody therapy, another form of immunotherapy, also uses antibodies to fight the battle. But instead of making a patient’s body produce its own antibodies, as vaccines do, this type of therapy uses antibodies mass-produced in the lab.
Vaccines to treat cancer come in several variations, none of which have yet been approved in the U.S. But clinical trials are in progress and the results seem promising.
Because of chemotherapy’s harsh side effects, scientists are always searching for alternatives. Antiangiogenesis drugs work by cutting off the blood supply the cancerous tumor feeds on. Without this life source, the cancer cells can’t spread, grow or even live. What’s so special about antiangiogenesis drugs? They seem to cause little or no damage to nearby healthy cells, eliminating the severe side effects a patient may experience during chemotherapy. What’s more, cancers do not appear to be developing resistance to these drugs.
Antiangiogenesis therapy may help extend and improve the quality of cancer patients’ lives; however, it is not a cure for cancer. So far, antiangiogenesis drugs show the most promise for helping patients with colon or lung cancer. Doctors hope that combining antiangiogenesis therapy with chemotherapy may point to further potential.
Current gene therapy research focuses on how genetic changes cause normal cells to become cancer cells. Scientists are hopeful that gene therapy could stop cancer cells from forming, make cancer cells more sensitive to other treatments like chemotherapy or help healthy body cells resist the damage that causes side effects. Someday, scientists hope they’ll be able to treat cancer, along with many other diseases, by replacing damaged or missing genes. Many clinical trials today focus on how to determine which genes need to be replaced and how to safely deliver the healthy genes to their targets.
Keep in mind that many of these techniques are still a long way off from regular use. While these potential cancer breakthroughs show promise, it often takes years of research and several independent studies to confirm new findings.