10 Oct 2022
Immunity against Cancer, a Not So Distant Reality
Estimated read time: 5 minutes
Few areas of medicine have seen as many dramatic advances as cancer testing and treatment. To diagnose, treat, and cure this condition, which affects 18.1 million people worldwide every year, science has pushed itself to the limits both inside and outside the human body. Discoveries include genetic tests capable of detecting risk, immunotherapies targeting genes, aerosol chemotherapy, and strategies seeking to destroy the very formation of malignant cells.
The goal is to rid the world of this non-communicable disease that represents the leading cause of death globally.
The numbers support this effort by the international scientific community, which has brought the public and private sectors together in the ever-promising arena of the laboratory. In Latin America and the Caribbean, around 1.5 million cancer cases are diagnosed each year, with 700,000 deaths taking place. In the United States, there are around 1.7 million cases annually, with nearly 600,000 deaths.
Scientists describe this moment as the “golden era” of cancer research and treatment. For decades, chemotherapy has been the most important treatment for this condition, and it indeed remains a central therapy. It destroys cancer cells and prevents them from dividing, or in other words, from continuing to grow.
However, traditional chemotherapy also wipes out normal cells. It has side effects and high toxicity, and it causes resistance. That’s why the next step is finding effective, non-invasive tests and therapies with a high success rate. Although there are challenges, there is already a long list of clinical achievements in this direction, the most promising of which are described below.
Genetic testing helps estimate a person’s probability of developing cancer over the course of their lifetime. It does this by looking for specific changes in their genes, chromosomes, or proteins, called mutations.
In many cases, these tests can detect whether a certain mutation could be passed from parent to child, which helps guide healthcare to eventually prevent that mutation from developing into cancer, or to manage the cancer if it does develop.
There is, however, controversy. Many people who have genetic mutations that predispose them to cancer will not develop it, and some experts believe that a balance must be struck between the emotional stress that can come from knowing you are a carrier of a risk gene versus the probability of developing the disease.
Genetic testing is available for some types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, colon, thyroid, prostate, pancreatic, melanoma, sarcoma, kidney, and stomach cancer.
Why simply attack diseased cells when the body could be taught to fight cancer? That is the central question that has prompted researchers to launch a new exploration of possible treatments. Just as the immune system is trained to fight bacteria or viruses, clinical trials with the most innovative targeted immunotherapies are aiming for that goal: allowing the body itself to become a trained soldier in the battle against cancer.
One avenue being explored in this area is the use of antibodies, a type of protein produced naturally by the immune system when it detects harmful substances or antigens. Each type of antibody is unique and defends the body against a specific type of antigen. Scientists can now complement this function of the immune system by creating and modifying antibodies in the lab that target specific types of cancer. Most targeted antibodies are referred to as “passive” immunotherapies, because they directly target tumor cells rather than immune cells. However, more recent innovations have produced variations of targeted antibodies that are considered “active” immunotherapies, since they also target immune cells.
Targeted immunotherapy is also versatile in that it can be administered intravenously, as an injection, or as a pill.
These therapies are already in use in clinical settings. There are currently 111 clinical trials underway around the world exploring more ways to use this therapeutic option to treat cancer. Immunotherapy is now considered one of the most promising treatments against cancer.
Pressurized Intraperitoneal Aerosol Chemotherapy
This minimally invasive form of chemotherapy, an alternative to the long intravenous sessions in specific cases of advanced cancer, was first used a decade ago in patients with a metastatic form of colorectal cancer. However, there have been recent clinical trials to extend its use to other types of cancer, and the results appear to be promising.
Pressurized intraperitoneal aerosol chemotherapy uses the technique of laparoscopy to introduce oncological drugs directly into the abdominal cavity, allowing more direct access to the tumor and deeper dissemination of the cancer treatment drugs.
There are 22 clinical trials underway to research the potential of this technique.
Discoveries that are Quickly Transformed into Treatments
In the past, it took years to create a vaccine or develop a new drug or therapy. Today, new technologies, existing resources, and institutional and international collaboration have brought the laboratory much closer to the doctor’s office or the hospital bed.
New therapies are being used in medical research settings, with high safety standards and with trial data quickly translated into clinical use. At the same time, these trials are more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, receiving patients from all demographic groups, which leads to more inclusive results. In short, the gap between experimental therapy and clinical use is smaller and more effective.
However, that does not mean that these more innovative therapies are widely used. There is still a long path ahead of political, economic, and social commitment for these expensive therapies to become accessible to all cancer patients who need them.
If that is achieved, what has until now been an expression of wishful thinking could become reality: getting cancer under control for good.
Remember, always consult with your physician or health care professional to determine the best options for your body and health and to answer any questions you may have regarding any medical matter.