Cancer is a word that spells dread and uncertainty to all who hear it. Its devastating effects do not only directly affect us and our health, but also reverberate through the lives of those we love; those who suffer with us in very different ways. Cancer may destroy lives, but all hope is not lost.
Each year, scientists and oncologists experimenting on the many different cancers out there are making new strides in the realm of cancer treatment. Many of the treatments represented here are in the very experimental phases, but each is promising enough to give hope to those affected worldwide.
For years, oncologists have used various forms of radiation therapies to help attack cancerous growths and irradiate human blood against the formation of new cancer cells. Many times, irradiated tumors will go into remission and these treatments are fairly effective. Still, they can be painful and result in tissue damage.
Localized radiation isn’t the only therapy used to destroy cancer cells, either. Recently, scientists have begun using the whole-body administration of extreme heat to help destroy cancer cells. We have learned that intense heating will cause denaturation and coagulation of cellular proteins, which is to say it rapidly kills the cells within a tumor.
Application of Heat
Once those cells are denatured, they spread apart and are harmless enough that the body’s natural healing mechanisms can “clean them out” without spreading cancer. If this turns out to be a viable treatment, we can destroy cancer from the inside out. Now, all we have to do is figure out how much heat is needed to destroy the tumor without affecting our other, healthy cells.
There are many non-invasive cancer treatments out there as well. These treatments are designed so that doctors aren’t required to create an incision or remove any tissue, tumor or otherwise. Non-invasive treatments have the benefit of requiring shorter recovery time for patients and can be used in scenarios where surgery isn’t an option.
One such non-invasive treatment that scientists are trying out involves the experimental application of radio waves. The idea is that gold or carbon nanoparticles will be injected into the tumor. Radio waves will then be directed at the tumor and used to essentially heat up the tiny metals in the cancerous tissue, destroying it. Gold and carbon are chosen to limit the risk of metal poisoning.
Tumor Treating Fields
Another experimental non-invasive treatment is one that involves electric fields. These tumor treating fields are created through the use of external electrodes placed on the body surrounding the cancerous growth. The treatment is still in the early stages of development but results have been more successful than chemotherapy and seem to have no side-effects other than being time-consuming.
Many places around the world are using High-Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU) to successfully treat cancer. China, Hong Kong, and Korea have all seen several thousand patients receive positive results. Thus far, HIFU has been used to destroy tumors in the bones, brain, breast, liver, pancreas, rectum, kidney, testes, and prostate.
The downside to the application of ultrasound is that sometimes the heat and movement it produces can agitate more than just cancer cells. Nevertheless, there are many benefits to using HIFU and in the future, the addition of HIFU along higher-density anti-cancer drug loads and nanomedicines could target tumors quicker and more effectively than traditional cancer therapy.
Some cancer treatments involve something called gene therapy. This involves introducing certain enzymes into cancerous cells to make them more susceptible to particular chemotherapy agents. One of those therapies introduces a chemical component called thymidine kinase, which normally plays a key function in the synthesis of DNA and affects cell division.
The basic idea here is that by introducing genes that suppress cell division, we can slow the rapidly growing cells of malignant tumors, thereby stopping cancer at the source. If we can arrest tumor growth on a cellular level, then no chemo, radiation, or surgery will be necessary. It’s been highly effective in the treatment of chickenpox and shingles but is in the early stages of clinical trials.
The idea behind immunotherapy is to use the body’s own natural defense mechanisms to fight off cancerous cells. These treatments are usually facilitated in the form of vaccines that introduce tools into our existing immune system to help fight cancer. It has been proven to work best on lung and bladder cancer. Thus far, only Sipuleucel-T (Provenge) has been FDA approved as an immunotherapeutic vaccine.
Scientists are using Monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer as well. Normally, our antibodies stick to other proteins called antigens and attack them. Once an antigen is “flagged,” other antibodies attach to and attack it as well. Monoclonal antibodies are designed to find and attach to cancer cells, something normal antibodies don’t usually attach to, and they prompt our antibodies to attack these cancer cells on their own.
Adoptive Cell Transfers
Another strange and surprisingly effective treatment involves removing immune system cells from a patient’s body, re-engineering them to fight back against specific cancer cells, and putting them back into the patient’s body to battle cancer. This method is known as adoptive cell transfer and it is difficult because no two cancers are the same. The cells have to be specifically tailored to each patient.
An Expensive Enterprise
This makes adoptive cell treatment particularly resource-intensive and not applicable to the overall treatment of cancer. That being said, we already understand that each cancer is different and that blanket treatments don’t necessarily work for everyone. It has been a highly promising treatment since its introduction in the 1990s but because of the cost, is not readily available for most patients.
As with many other diseases, drugs therapies are also sometimes used in the treatment of cancer. Traditional drug therapies involve using man-made or even natural drugs to promote cancer recovery. One drug in particular, Dichloroacetate (DCA) has been found to reduce tumors in lab rats by reactivating the mitochondria in oxygen-starved tumor cells, and thus promoting apoptosis, or the removal of destroyed cancer cells.
Quercetin is a dietary supplement and antioxidant that eats up cancer-causing free radicals in the body. It has been proven to have anti-tumor properties in both oral cancers and in leukemia, one of the most widespread and difficult to treat cancers out there. Quercetin is a naturally occurring substance found in most fruits, vegetables, leaves, and grains, all of which doctors recommend their cancer patients should eat more of.
Researchers have also found that they can use anaerobic bacteria to consume the insides of oxygen-poor tumor cells in patients. When these tumors come into contact with their new oxygenated sides, they die. The one problem with this therapy is that the commonly-used bacteria, clostridium novyi, does not consume all parts of the malignant tissue and will leave some behind.
The last, most unusual therapy is one that utilizes genetically-modified poliovirus samples to help treat cancer. This is an extremely new option and it works by using a modified type of poliovirus along with a portion of a cold-causing rhinovirus to remove the intrinsic disease-causing properties of the poliovirus. Once inside the tumor, the new version of the poliovirus destroys the cancerous cells.
Fighting the Good Fight
It also has the added benefit of alerting our own immune system to the presence of the cancerous cells and drives them to fight against cancer too. Our immune system is trained to fight against viruses but not cancer. However, now that it sees the cancer cells as viral, it has no trouble attacking them.
Most of these amazing treatments are still in the experimental stage, but all have been proven to have at least some positive effect in eradicating cancer in clinical trials. The more we learn about what is possible, the more we can replace traditional cancer treatments and find ways to eventually eliminate cancer entirely.