By Charlotte Crang
The recent deaths of entertainment icons David Bowie, Joe Cocker and Alan Rickman cast a new spotlight on the battle between medical science and cancer.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death. The World Health Organization says 8.2 million people die each year from cancer. The number of cases is expected to rise by 70% in the next two decades, partly because we are living longer and our cells have more time to amass damage.
Those on the cutting edge of research, however, see a real chance of making cancer less lethal.
“It really feels like we are on the cusp of a rejuvenated thinking of how we can tackle this,” Dr. Alan Worsley of Cancer Research UK said in an interview.
In his State of the Union address in January, U.S. President Barack Obama backed a call by Vice President Joe Biden for a “moon shot” push for a cure. Biden lost his son to cancer and hopes the kind of focus that helped the United States land men on the moon in 1969 could dramatically accelerate the pace of discovery.
“Just in the past four years, we’ve seen amazing advancements,” Biden wrote in an Internet post on January 12. “And this is an inflection point.”
Search for a malaria vaccine led to new discovery in cancer research.
Cancer Research UK has offered a 20-million-pound sterling ($29-million) prize to scientists who “push the boundaries” of seven key cancer-related questions, including how to improve diagnosis.
At the University of Copenhagen, tests by Dr. Ali Salanti on a vaccine to combat malaria in pregnant women led to the discovery of a protein with the potential to kill cancerous cells.
In an email interview, he explained that the malaria parasite bonds to a certain type of carbohydrate in a pregnant woman’s placenta. The carbohydrate is also found in tumors.
Working with the University of British Columbia, Dr. Salanti found that the protein that allows this bond to occur can, when combined with a toxin, kill cancer cells.
He believes it could be developed into a “targeting compound or a diagnostic compound, in particular for the types of cancer where there is no current treatment.”
Another area that has the research community buzzing is immunotherapy.
The first use of gene editing on a baby was successful.
According to Dr. Worsley, the theory is that our bodies continually fight off smaller cancers, but are sometimes tricked into protecting tumors. Immunotherapies seek to “wake up” the immune systems of cancer patients to recognize threats.
He cited the case of Layla Richards, a one-year-old suffering from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. Researchers at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital “designed the immune cells to specifically recognize the cancer.”
This gene-editing technique had previously only been tested on mice. Layla was declared cancer-free and ready to return home last November.
Advances in more traditional therapies have made them more effective and reduced their side effects. Stereotactic ablative body radiotherapy (SABR) now allows doctors to control the strength and angle of a beam.
”The net effect is your tumor gets whacking great doses of radiation,” said Dr. Worsley. “But your tissues surrounding it get a lot less.”
With genome mapping it is now possible to take a biopsy from a patient’s tumor and “sequence the entire DNA of that cancer while they’re still being treated,” Worsley said. This allows doctors to identify the type of cell mutation and choose the best course of treatment.
“It’s stuff that we could never have dreamed of.”
Globalization of communications, too, has improved scientific exchange, raising hopes for the treatment of patients.
Lara Casalotti, a 24-year-old student from North London diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), was due to undergo standard treatment of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. But her Chinese/Thai/Italian origins made it almost impossible to find a compatible donor on the worldwide bone marrow registry.
Her family turned to social media to appeal for donors of mixed-race or Asian descent. The initiative #Match4Lara was widely reported in the Thai and Italian media.
AML patients struggling to find a donor may benefit from the work of the Canadian Leucegene Project, co-led by Dr. Guy Sauvageau. In 2014, he discovered a molecule that can multiply the number of stem cells in umbilical cord blood and could increase ten-fold the blood units available for transplants.
“It’s stuff that we could never have dreamed of years ago” said Worsley. Perhaps cancers will one day become as preventable and curable as former killers like TB or polio.
Charlotte Crang is studying French and English at King’s College London. She is currently attending Sorbonne Paris IV on her Erasmus year abroad. She has lived in six countries and worked at international events including the London 2012 Olympics. Charlotte is interested in learning about other cultures and innovators around the globe.