New advances in treating cancer
If you’ve suffered from cancer or if there’s a history of it in your family, a part of you is always going to be on the alert for its appearance or reappearance. It can be difficult to feel confident that treatment would be manageable and effective, and although there are always stories about new treatments emerging, few of them have real substance. Here are four developments that really can give you hope.
Blood tests for cancer
Standard biopsies for cancer are invasive and sometimes risky in themselves, especially in older patients. Imagine if there was a simple blood test that could detect the presence of cancer-related molecules. It could be carried out easily – even as part of an annual general health check-up – enabling cancers to be detected much earlier, when they’re more treatable. Several treatment centers are now exploring the potential of such treatments – known as liquid biopsies. Even if they don’t prove to be 100% reliable, they could help to identify those patients at higher risk who are most likely to benefit from further investigation.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are both effective ways of treating cancer but do massive collateral damage. Immunotherapy, a longstanding idea that is now finally at the practical stage, is much more precise. It involves reprogramming cells from the immune system so that they target cancer cells – and because the immune system remembers its past battles, it’s also an effective way to stop cancer from coming back. At present, this type of treatment doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s continuously being refined and may well become the first line of defense against cancer in years to come.
Faster development of medical devices
For a long time, clinical trials for prospective new devices to be used in cancer treatment have focused on a limited group of patients, with those conducted in the US only recently starting to include older people. With rarer cancers, trials are often delayed because not enough patients are available to participate. This is now changing because the NMPA (National Medical Products Association) in China has tightened up standards in the country at the same time that regulatory changes have made it easier for foreigners to invest there, resulting in substantially increased investment in trials with access to a vast new pool of volunteers.
Historically, one of the big challenges of treating cancer has been that patients respond to drugs in highly individual ways. What works for one person may simply make another very sick, lose hair or feel fatigued while achieving nothing. Now, the personalization of treatments based on DNA is getting around this problem, making it easier to target patients with the right drugs earlier on in their treatment. This has led to additional advantages, including cutting down the cost of the average course of treatment and reducing the amount of time that patients need to spend in the hospital.
Today, many cancers that used to be a death sentence have become simple to treat for most patients. In a decade’s time, that could be the case for many more. These advancements are already helping people today, so there is real reason for hope.