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2022 Breakthroughs in the fight against cancer

  • Cancer is one of the world’s main causes of death, having led to 10 million deaths in 2020.
  • Scientists are utilising artificial intelligence, DNA sequencing, precision oncology and other technologies to advance the treatment and diagnosis of the disease. 
  • Breakthroughs include the DNA sequencing of more than 12 000 cancer tumours and a novel test for diagnosing pancreatic cancer – one of the deadliest cancers. 

 Cancer caused the death of nearly 10 million people in 2020 and is a primary cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. 

Among the most common cancers are breast cancer, lung cancer and colon cancer. 

Mortality rates from cancer were declining pre-pandemic. Now COVID-19 has led to a large backlog in cancer diagnosis and treatment, however, medical developments are continuously helping the world fight cancer. Here are some recent developments. It is important to note that these developments are advancements on a global scale and could potentially reach South African shores in the near future. 

Medical Advancements

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Precision oncology is the “best new weapon to defeat cancer”, according to the chief executive of Genetron Health, Sizhen Wang, in a blog for the World Economic Forum. This involves the study of the genetic makeup and molecular characteristics of cancer tumours in individual patients. This approach identifies changes in cells that might be the cause of cancer growing and spreading. This allows for personalised treatments to be developed. As precision oncology treatments are targeted – in contrast with general treatments such as chemotherapy – it could cause less harm to healthy cells with fewer side effects as a result.

Artificial intelligence fights cancer

In India, World Economic Forum partners are utilising developing technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to advance cancer care as we know it. For example, AI-based risk profiling can help screen for common cancers such as breast cancer, helping with early diagnosis. AI technology can further be used to analyse X-rays to identify cancers in locations where imaging experts might be hard to come by. These are but two of 18 cancer interventions that The Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution of the World Economic Forum India hopes to accelerate.

Greater prediction capabilities

In the US alone, lung cancer kills more people yearly than the next three deadliest cancers combined. It is particularly challenging to detect the early stages of the disease using x-rays and scans exclusively. As this raises concern, MIT scientists have developed an AI learning model that predicts an individual’s probability of developing lung cancer up to six years in advance via a low-dose CT scan. Trained using complicated imaging data, 'Sybil' can predict both short- and long-term lung cancer risks, according to a recent study. Co-author, Jeremy Wohlwend, claims, "We found that while we as humans couldn't quite see where the cancer was, the model could still have some predictive power as to which lung would eventually develop cancer."

Clues in the DNA of cancer

Precision oncology is the “best new weapon to defeat cancer”, according to the chief executive of Genetron Health, Sizhen Wang, in a blog for the World Economic Forum. This involves the study of the genetic makeup and molecular characteristics of cancer tumours in individual patients. This approach identifies changes in cells that might be the cause of cancer growing and spreading. This allows for personalised treatments to be developed. As precision oncology treatments are targeted – in contrast with general treatments such as chemotherapy – it could cause less harm to healthy cells with fewer side effects as a result.

Liquid and synthetic biopsies

Biopsies are the primary way doctors diagnose cancer – but it is an invasive process and involves removing a section of tissue from the body, surgically at times, and is then examined in a laboratory. Liquid biopsies are an easier and less invasive solution involving the testing of blood samples for signs of cancer. Synthetic biopsies are another innovation that can force cancer cells to reveal themselves during the earliest stages of the disease.

CAR-T-cell therapy

A treatment that enables immune cells to hunt down and eliminate cancer cells was recently declared a success for leukaemia patients. The treatment, called CAR-T-cell therapy, involves the removal of and genetical alteration of immune cells, called T cells, from cancer patients. The transformed cells then produce proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These recognise “These are compared to “fingerprints in a crime scene.”” Charl Greeff Research & Development 2023/03/31 Page 3 of 4 and can eliminate cancer cells. In the journal Nature, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania announced that two of the first individuals who received the CAR-T-cell therapy treatment were still in remission 12 years later.

Fighting pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is known to be one of the deadliest cancers. It is hardly ever diagnosed before it starts to spread and sees a survival rate of less than 5% over five years. At the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, scientists pioneered a test that was able to identify 95% pancreatic cancers in its early stages in a study. The research, published in Nature Communications Medicine, describes how biomarkers in extracellular vesicles – particles that regulate communication between cells – were able to detect pancreatic, ovarian and bladder cancer at their 1st and 2nd stages. (World Economic Forum, 2022)

Stopping the spread of breast cancer

Scientists from the Worldwide Cancer Research in Italy has discovered a previously unknown way of breast cancer cells surviving treatment. The finding was that beast cancer cells prevalent in places such as the lungs seem to rely on specific antioxidants to survive there. This could lead to a new way of destroying breast cancer cells that have escaped treatment.

Making radiotherapy work for more patients

Researchers from the Worldwide Cancer Research in Spain discovered a way that could help treat individuals with cancer that has spread to the brain. In the future, a blood test could reveal if patients are likely to respond to radiotherapy or whether the cancer will counterattack it, after which a drug called a RAGE inhibitor could make radiotherapy work more effectively for those that would resist it.

Engineering immune cells to hunt down cancer

Researchers from the Worldwide Cancer Research in Italy have discovered a breakthrough that could mean better, more effective immunotherapy options for cancer patients. The team discovered a way to engineer a specific type of immune cell to target and destroy cancer cells, after which its cancer-killing ability is boosted using a drug administered using nanotechnology. (Worldwide cancer research, 2022)

With the developments of these novel cancer research breakthroughs, a sense of hope is visible beyond the horizon. These pioneers are dedicating their lives towards cancer research and exciting new discoveries so that cancer patients may hold onto this hope and live healthier and longer lives. There are countless advancements that are occurring more rapidly day-by-day, and, with just a glimmer of hope, it is a pursuit well worth it. 

References

World Economic Forum. (2022, May 5). 7 new breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/05/cancer-treatment-and-diagnosis-breakthroughs/ 

Worldwide Cancer Research. (2022, December 15). Our top 5 cancer research breakthroughs of 2022. Retrieved from Worldwide cancer research: https://www.worldwidecancerresearch.org/news-opinion/2022/december/our-top-5-cancer-research-breakthroughs-of-2022/ 

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