It’s been more than forty years since Nixon announced his War on Cancer. He wanted to have the disease beaten in under a decade. But as the 1980s approached, it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen. Cancer was too complex a disease, with too many idiosyncrasies for the science of the time to master. Now, though, things are looking better, as well as a little different. In hindsight, it was actually a little bit naive to suggest that cancer might have a “cure.” Instead, scientists prefer to talk about cancer with disease and cancer without. It’s clear that progress is being made, but cancer is far more complex a process than many in the medical community anticipated.
With that said, 2016 has been an excellent year for progress on defeating cancer. Finally, scientists are acquiring technologies, like gene editing and xenografting, that will allow them the level of control they need in order to reduce symptoms and eliminate signs of disease. Here are some of the breakthroughs we’ve seen this year alone.
A Teenager Found A Way To Treat “Triple Negative Breast Cancer”
For a long time, triple negative breast cancer was considered untreatable. The reason was that it was a rare form of cancer with no receptors on the surface of the cancer cells. In the past, medics tried to treat the disease with the usual combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, but the chances of survival were low.
But then this year a sixteen-year-old from England called Krtin Nithyanandam turned the medical world on its head by finding a way to beat these pesky tumor cells. He discovered that he was able to stop the tumor cells at an early stage differentiating into a more deadly form. He also showed scientists how to suppress the growth of triple-negative breast cancer cells, making the regular chemotherapy treatments more effective. The two discoveries, when taken together, have revolutionized the treatment of triple negative breast cancer, and now scientists are awaiting mortality data to see how much of an impact the new techniques have had.
The Discovery Of Five More Breast Cancer Genes Makes Personalized Medicine A Possibility
Most people who casually read about health and medicine have heard of the breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes are positively associated with increased breast cancer risk, leading many women, including most famously Angelina Jolie, to take drastic preventive measures and get mastectomies.
But in a study published by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute this year, a whole new range of breast cancer genes was discovered. In total, they found five additional genes associated with cancer, as well as a whole host of other mutation signatures that signal the development of tumors.
This means that scientists are finally able to build a more complete picture of a patient’s cancer risk. They are able to figure out, for instance, why it is that some cancers afflict certain groups of people more often than others, and they’re able to more accurately predict a person’s lifetime chances of developing cancer while not depending on just a handful of genes.
Doctors say that this new discovery opens up the possibility of personalized medicine using drugs designed for each particular patient. According to Serena Nik-Zainal, one of the researchers involved in the study, the new discovery paves the way for building entire personalized cancer genomes that will make it much easier to assess and diagnose both men and women with breast cancer.
We Now Know How HER2 Breast Cancer Works
HER2 is a particularly nasty form of breast cancer because it acts as if it has nine lives. The drugs that target cancer at the moment only have the ability to deactivate it, rather than kill it. And so HER2 breast cancer cells can be reactivated at any time. HER2 is also problematic because it causes cancer cells to grow even more out of control, making the job of treating it even harder.
But now scientists think that they have found a solution. In a recent study, a group of researchers identified what it was about the current antibody medicines that make them ineffective against HER2 cancer cells. It turns out that these antibodies contain a particular type of protein which is responsible for reactivating the growth of cancer cells.
Once they’d found the problem protein, the team was able to do something about it. They didn’t take it out of the antibody. Instead, they used another protein that latched onto the surface of the cancer cells which blocked the original reactivation protein. One researcher behind the study said that the research demonstrated that science had found “the Achilles heel of HER2 positive cancer cells” and that the discovery paved the way for more effective treatments in the future.
It’s Now Possible To Detect Breast Cancer With A Blood Test
For years, women have been turning up to the doctor’s office to get mammograms, an uncomfortable procedure that involves placing the breasts in two cups in a machine and scanning them. But this year, a team of French and Australian scientists figured out a way to screen for breast cancer than doesn’t involve mammograms or invasive biopsies.
Back in September, the team published a study in which they found that cancer cells were characterized by unusual ratios of nitrogen-15 and carbon-13 isotopes. The team the hypothesized that these isotopes could be used in a blood test to detect the presence of cancer.
In a sense, what the team has found is the holy grail of cancer diagnosis. If it proves to be a reliable measure, doctors will finally be able to detect cancer as easily as they detect elevated blood sugar. It’ll be a simple test that can be quickly deployed, worldwide.
Of course, this is just a sample of some of the exciting stuff that is happening in the breast cancer. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that new drug combos are destroying breast cancer cells in as little as 11 days. In the future, we can expect the pace of progress to increase further.