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Turning the tables on cancer

Oncologists treat more than 100 different types of cancer, but so far they’ve only had brute-force weapons like radiation, surgery and chemotherapy—effective, yes, but these treatments sometimes cause unpleasant side effects, too.

Fortunately, thanks to years of painstaking research, revolutionary anticancer therapies will soon complement, or even replace, today’s treatments—without causing added suffering.

No fooling

One promising area of research is immunotherapy, which combines disease-fighting white blood cells or certain germs with aspirated cancer cells (removed from the tumor by a suction needle). When injected back into the patient, this molecular mix acts as a vaccine, triggering a vigorous immune-system response that doesn’t harm healthy tissue.

Depending on the research goal, vaccine cells are genetically altered to neutralize cancer’s “dirty tricks.”

For instance, the disease often fools our immune system into thinking that mutant cells are harmless. Researchers are studying ways to betray these cells to the body’s natural defenses.

Other times, cancer turns off the self-destruct genes that purge our bodies of deformed cells. So scientists are exploring ways to turn those genes back on.

Researchers are also learning how to turn cancer’s mutant processes against itself.

Examples include:

  • Transplants. Colorado researchers transplanted immune cells into the bone marrow of 45 elderly cancer patients. Instead of being suppressed to avoid rejection—a routine safeguard—the cells were allowed to assault the patients’ tumors head-on. After a year, half the cancers were in remission, and eight patients had no detectable cancer.
  • “Turncoats.” In Dallas, doctors treated 22 lung cancer patients with genetically altered cancer cells that, instead of aiding the tumors’ growth, caused the release of more immune hormones to fight the disease. Three patients are now cancer free. German doctors gave a similar compound to 17 kidney cancer patients. Seven responded, and four are in complete remission.
  • Cell bombs. Herceptin is a relatively new drug known as a monoclonal antibody. It sticks to and neutralizes a protein responsible for runaway cell growth in certain breast tumors. Now scientists think monoclonal antibodies can carry toxins or radioisotopes to other types of cancer, foiling tumors.
  • Power outages. In Oregon, doctors developed a compound called Gleevec that shuts off a key mutant protein involved in a rare form of leukemia. The drug improved the health of 90 percent of patients in clinical trials, and 28 percent became disease free— with very mild side effects. This promising drug has now been approved for use in fighting six other types of cancer.

The best is yet to come

True, most of these tantalizing therapies are still in early-stage trials. Nonetheless, in dozens of instances, they show enormous potential.

If these techniques can be perfected, cancer may someday be treated and managed as a chronic ailment, much like diabetes or heart disease.