The amount of scientific knowledge emerging every year is quite staggering and not surprisingly, on the rise. Thus, it is no surprise that in our current day and age, science has become a field of information technology, providing us with more and more clarity in regards to the world’s greatest problems, such as the complexity of cancer.
Cancer continues to be the object of research, funding, and international efforts- but is a cure for cancer in sight? The answer to this question depends on whom the question is being posed to. If all of the scientific breakthrough headlines are to be believed, then the cure for cancer is right around the corner. In fact, with currently available treatments, cancers such as such as prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer, skin cancer, and breast cancer are considered “curable” . However, the reason why we will not be able to find a “cure” for some time is because cancer is not one disease; it’s the catchall term given to dozens of diseases, all of which result in uncontrolled tissue growth. For this reason, there is no single cause for cancer and thus no singular “cure”- at least, not yet, and quite possibly not for some time.
At times, in the scientific community , even using the term “cure” remains controversial. Cancer is often spoken of in terms of “years in remission” since there are instances where it does resurface. Even if it does not, reappear, there is still the life-long looming fear that one day it may. Despite this, the good news is that with new technology and ongoing discoveries, better detection methods and new and improved therapies have resulted in improved longevity and quality of life for cancer patients. Over the last fifty years survival rates have risen from an average of 24 percent to 50 percent .
Currently used methods to treat cancer include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, and gene therapy . The two most common of these methods , after surgery, are chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Both of these methods prevent cancerous cells from replicating through mechanisms including DNA and protein damage, ultimately resulting in cell death. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also make people very sick, as they are indiscriminate in their effects on the body, attacking healthy cells as well. Unfortunately, this can result in major side effects such as hair loss. Today, patients receive a combination of therapies or multiple types of chemotherapies simultaneously. These treatments have enabled many people with the disease to go on and live healthy lives.
On the other hand, there are times where treatments are unsuccessful. Like bacterial resistance to antibiotics, treatment with a chemotherapeutic may leave behind a reservoir of cells which can potentially grow and develop resistance to the chemotherapy drug . Additionally, cancer cells themselves are mutating rapidly, rendering existing therapeutics ineffective.
What’s the solution? At the moment, using our own immune system to fight off cancer cells, or immunotherapy, seems to hold great potential as an effective cancer treatment. This involves drugs (antibodies) that are designed to bind to targets on the surface of cancer cells, which then elicit an immune response . A recent study demonstrated that the modification of host T-cells (which fight off foreign invaders in the body) and their subsequent re-adminstration into tumor cells results in an enhanced immune response .. Scientists hope that this can be used to modify and culture a patients’ T cells, boosting their ability to recognize cancer cells and subsequently attack them. Immunotherapy is still in its infancy and is not as widely used as the aforementioned treatments, but has been approved to treat many cancers, such as breast cancer.
Aside from immunotherapy , the use of nanoparticles is a cancer treatment that has started to gain a lot of traction as well . Recently, Sofie Snipstad and colleagues have shown that when nanoparticles, instead of an injection, deliver a cancer-fighting drug , 250 times more of the chemotherapeutic makes it to the tumor. This mechanism is still young and has not yet made it to clinical trial but it holds immense promise as a means to treat cancer in the future.
What’s does the future of cancer treatment look like? For one, it will involve targeted and individualized cancer therapies especially since the one-size-fits-all approach to cancer is flawed. The goal is to perfect gene therapy, a method involving the replacement of damaged genes underlying a specific cancer. With our understanding of CRISPR-Cas9 increasing, using gene therapy to treat cancer is not a distant possibility- nor is the elimination of various types of cancer, once and for all.