In a Press Conference on August 20, 2015, the 39th President of the United States, now 90-year-old Jimmy Carter, revealed (video) that during a liver surgery earlier this month the doctors diagnosed that he has cancer. The type of cancer that he is suffering from is called melanoma, which has already spread to his liver and brain. Medical jargon would term it as deadly metastatic cancer.
Though the surgeons have removed the liver tumor, and well-targeted radiation treatment for four other small tumors in his brain has already been initiated, the original site of the melanoma, the lethal skin cancer, has reportedly not been found, as yet.
Mr. Carter’s medical treatment has started with an infusion of a new class of drug that uses the human immune system to fight cancer cells. The drug has been reported to work not only in advanced metastatic cancer, but also in the old age of patients. The former American President appears optimistic about the treatment outcomes with this new therapy, ‘placing his fate in the hands of God’, though initially he thought that he had just weeks to live.
I shall deliberate in this article, in an easy to understand language, though briefly, the promises offered by two latest options for cancer cure. One of these two, has just become available to patients and the other one, after an initial jaw-dropping success, is undergoing further tests in a renowned research laboratory of the United States.
Two novel pathways for cancer treatment:
Until recently, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy used to be the three common options for cancer treatment. One breakthrough option has just been launched and more in the offing.
In search of a cure for cancer, pathbreaking outcomes of medical research, especially in the following two areas, are significant:
A. Immunotherapy: It is a revolutionary approach to cancer treatment. The first of this novel class of drugs has just come to the market, with which Mr.Jimmy Carter is now reportedly being treated.
B. Re-programming cancer cells back to normal: Success has just been achieved in laboratory studies with this technique. It holds a strong promise to cure cancer, universally.
On June 1, 2015, in an article titled, ‘Cure for terminal cancer’ found in game-changing drugs, “The Telegraph” – well-regarded international news daily, reported on anti-cancer immunotherapy drugs, as follows:
“Terminally ill cancer patients have been ‘effectively cured’ by a game-changing new class of drugs. In one trial, more than half of patients who had just months to live saw deadly tumors shrink or completely disappear.”
“In recent days, the results of trials of a number of treatments which harness the body’s immune system have been announced at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference in Chicago. They show promise in the fight against skin cancer and lung disease.”
As we know, most of the cancers are deadly. All these grow and spread, as they manage to hide from the immune system, disguising the life-threatening danger. Thus, medical research scientists pondered that the human immune system could play a critical role in the fight against cancer and even cure, by harnessing its ability to fight the deadly disease, effectively and decisively.
To achieve this goal, this class of new cancer drugs work by allowing the body to recognize and attack cancer as any other harmful invader to the body. It effectively blocks a cellular pathway that hinders the ability of the human immune system to attack cancer cells.
At present, to treat different types of cancer, more number of immunotherapy drugs are undergoing clinical investigations.
Brilliant treatment outcomes, but not universal:
It has been reported, about one third of patients taking immunotherapy for the treatment of cancer experienced positive results. Those who responded to this therapy, showed immediate effect with their tumors shrinking or vanishing in a matter of weeks. As a result, the patients who had no more than weeks or months to live, just as former US President Jimmy Carter, have gone into remission for years and continuing with their normal lives.
It has also been reported, otherwise such patients could expect to live just nine months, if given standard treatment of cancer. Researchers said, they were hopeful that half of the patients responded to immunotherapy would end up “living disease-free”.
These drugs are expensive, costing roughly US$150,000 per year, which is a part of a different debate altogether.
Not a ‘magic bullet’:
Besides its high cost and outstanding quality of results, it is worth noting that immunotherapy is not a ‘magic bullet’ for all types of patients and in all cancer. It, therefore, throws a challenge for the oncologists to understand, why immunotherapy benefits only to some cancer patients, and who are those patients?
Moreover, there is a possibility of immunotherapy sending immune system of some patients to overdrive, precipitating auto-immune disorder that may attack also the healthy cells.
Thus, immunotherapy is not the ‘Holy Grail’ for the treatment of cancer, neither it is nowhere near a perfect drug for the treatment of all types of cancers in all patients.
Two key findings:
In this regard, two key findings of the researchers on immunotherapy are as follows:
- Roughly around 15 to 20 percent of patients could experience shrinkage or remission of cancer
- Half of the patients who responded found it lasting for at least six months
Thus, immunotherapy can at best be a cure for only some terminally ill cancer patients, mostly for some time, but not for all.
“In the hands of God”:
All these factors on immunotherapy probably would help us to understand, why an erudite person like Mr. Jimmy Carter said, though optimistic about the new treatment, he is placing his fate ‘in the hands of God’.
B. Re-programming cancer cells back to normal:
The question, therefore, comes up now, if immunotherapy is not the ‘Holy Grail’ for cancer treatment that the research scientists have been intensively searching for, is there anything else coming up for cancer cure?
It appears so. A totally different approach to re-program the cancer cells back to normal has very recently been reported by Mayo Clinic’s Florida Campus in the United States. With this, cancer researchers’ dream of making the tumor cells morphing back to normal cells, they once were, would probably come true.
The research findings, published in Nature Cell Biology on August 24, 2015, represents ‘an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software for turning off cancer,’ said the senior investigator of this study.
In the normal process, cells in the human body divide constantly to replace themselves and stop dividing when they have replicated sufficiently. However, unlike the normal cells, cancer cells do not stop dividing, they go out of control, leading to huge cell reproduction and tumor growth.
For the ultimate cure of cancer, scientists at Mayo Clinic have now reportedly succeeded in reversing the process responsible for the normal cells from replicating too quickly.
Possible cure now within sight?
This could ultimately lead to a newer class of breakthrough treatment that would be able to reverse cancerous growth in the human body, possibly curing cancer, without the need of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or even immunotherapy.
Scientists at the Mayo Clinic have said that their initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are quite encouraging. They have successfully done this in very aggressive human cell lines from breast and bladder cancer.
Towards the ‘Holy Grail’:
In pursuit of finding a cancer cure, research scientists have been making commendable progress, over a period of time.
In the last few years, spectacular breakthroughs in treatment of cancer have been possible from the increasing genetic and biological understanding of the researchers, especially in ascertaining exact defects in the DNA code of human genes that cause cancer.
Ability to sequencing human genome has offered a key tool to the researchers to compare the DNA codes of cancerous and normal cells and identify the differences.
From within the 20,000 human genes, around 500 cancer genes have been reportedly discovered and are being catalogued. Clear understanding of what happens precisely when the cells divide uncontrollably and cancer spreads in different parts of the patients’ body, is taking place with commendable progress of various research initiatives in this area.
Based on the current knowledge on human genome, a number of new drugs have been and are being developed to target the cancer-causing genes with great accuracy. Such types of drugs are called ‘personalized medicines’, as these act on specific gene abnormality of patients related to certain types of cancer. Sophisticated laboratory tests facilitate treatment with ‘personalized medicines’. These are more effective with lesser side-effects, as compared to generally used anti-cancer drugs, prescribed to all cancer patients.
However, the question keeps lingering, ‘Is the Holy Grail for cancer cure has now come within sight?’
Medical scientists continue to take rapid strides towards better and more effective treatment for cancer, if not cure, with fewer side-effects.
Claims for long remissions with immunotherapy, are being reported for some patients with even metastatic cancer and also in old age, just like former President of America – Mr. Jimmy Carter.
The success achieved by the scientists of ‘Mayo Clinic’ in re-programming rogue cancer cells back to normal, is stunning.
Being successful in this effort, the researchers have compared cancer with a complex software program of life. When it goes out of control, ‘instead of the code for normal cells, a code for making abnormal cells is executed’. This new study signals a strong possibility of bringing the cancer cells back to normal.
Medical experts keep their fingers crossed. Although, some of them do apprehend that there may never be a single ‘Magic Bullet’ to cure all types of cancer in all patients. This is mainly because cancer involves a large number of different disease areas, such as, breast, lung, bowel, prostate, blood and so on.
But hope refuses to fade out, as science continues to keep unravelling spectacular breakthroughs in this direction, at a fairly brisk pace. All these researches may be cancer types or patient types specifics, but the progress is taking place in the right direction.
Even in the ‘Mayo Clinic study’, scientists have been, so far, successful in re-programming the breast and bladder cancer cells back to normal, though they believe that this success sends a strong signal of an “early and somewhat universal event in cancer.”
Immunotherapy is undoubtedly a path breaking step that ensures cure in some types of cancer and in some categories of patients. However, if re-programming the cancer cells back to normal, eventually becomes an ‘universal event’ in the treatment of this generally frightening disease, no doubt, the medical science is now slowly but surely inching towards the ‘Holy Grail’ for cancer cure…at long last.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.