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GOOD HEALTH NEWS: Positive Developments in Cancer Research
November 13, 2011
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Scientists and researchers across the world are working on ways to cure cancer. Although the fight against the disease is ongoing, advances are being made all the time. This week saw some new developments that may help improve the chances of cancer patients surviving the disease.

Personalized Genetic Treatments

Doctors in the U.S. have developed a new test called "SNaPshot", which rapidly identifies which genetic mutations have caused a cancer. The test will allow doctors to provide more effective targeted therapy to patients within a matter of weeks because it offers a much broader picture of the genetic makeup of the cancer each patient has.

According to Lecia Sequist of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, a study of the new technology is exciting, "because it demonstrates it is possible to integrate testing for multiple genetic biomarkers into a busy clinic and steer patients toward personalized therapies". New drugs that target cancers with specific genetic anomalies mean tests like these could help the fight against the disease.

A Computer That Evaluates Breast Cancer Better Than Humans

A big part of curing cancer is catching it early enough, and understanding what type it is - and a team of computer scientists at Stanford University have developed a more effective way of doing so, by examining microscopic images of breast cancer more effectively. They've created a system called Computational Pathologist, or C-Path, a machine-learning-based method for analyzing images of cancerous tissues and predicting patient survival. And according to their results, C-Path is more accurate than human analysis.

The C-Path system assesses 6,642 cellular factors to read the relationship between them. This allows for a fuller picture of the situation, and helps to identify structural features in a patient's cancer that are not usually considered in traditional analysis. Matt van de Rijn, the study's co-author, says "we are coming to think of cancer more holistically, as a complex system rather than as a bunch of bad cells in a tumour". And the C-Path computer can learn new things - the more patient data it takes in, the more accurate it gets.

Using Light to Destroy Cancerous Cells

Imagine a replacement for chemotherapy that uses light instead of radiation and doesn't damage the tissue around cancerous cells. A new therapy that's being tested at the National Cancer Institute is just that: a light-based way of attacking cancer cells without the harmful side effects of radiation treatments. The technique has been tested successfully on mice.

Cancer cells are targeted using a heat-sensitive dye that damages cells when exposed to specific wavelengths of light. The dye is mixed with cancer-specific antibodies that attach themselves to cancerous cells. Once they are bound to the cancer, the lights come on and destroy the cells in question, leaving healthy tissue alone. Much more work needs to be done to verify that the treatment can work in humans, but the team says their method shows promise.

A Vaccine Against Breast and Ovarian Cancers

A vaccine called PANVAC has shown promise in a small study of advanced breast and ovarian cancer patients. Researchers at the Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology at the U.S. National Cancer Institute have administered the vaccine to 26 women through monthly shots. In four of the breast cancer patients, the disease stopped progressing, and one woman's cancer disappeared entirely.

The vaccine helps the body's immune system recognize proteins produced specifically by cancer cells, thereby improving their ability to combat the disease. While the initial findings are positive, most of the participants in the study had already exhausted other forms of treatment, which may have prevented their bodies from responding as fully to the vaccine as they otherwise might have. Dr. James Gulley, director of the clinical trials group, said he'd like to see "the vaccine used earlier in the disease process before other [toxic drugs] that can damage the immune system".

One other way to reduce your risk of cancer? Quit smoking. Here's leading cancer researcher, physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee on the show, talking cancer prevention and why smoking can kill you.


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