Student Blog: Cancer Research

What is cancer?

By definition, cancer is uncontrolled cell growth and division. This results in a tumour, which is a mass of cells. However, not all tumours are cancerous. For example, they can be benign or malignant.

Benign tumours are not cancerous and normally stay in one part of the body. These normally are not dangerous.

Malignant tumours grow and spread across the body, invading neighbouring tissues. These are cancerous and can form secondary tumours which also divide uncontrollably.

How is cancer treated?

  • Surgery- When used to treat cancer, surgery is a procedure in which a surgeon removes tumours from a body. Only part of a tumour may be removed if a whole tumour being removed is bound to cause damage to the organs; this is debulking.
  • Radiation therapy- Uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. External beam radiation therapy is used to treat many types of cancer by using a machine that aims radiation at the tumour, whereas internal beam radiation is when a radioactive substance is put within the body.
  • Chemotherapy- Uses drugs to kill cancer cells.  This procedure can: Make a tumour smaller before surgery or radiation therapy, this is neoadjuvant chemotherapy or destroy cancer cells that may remain after treatment with surgery or radiation therapy, this is adjuvant chemotherapy. Help other treatments work better or kill cancer cells that have returned or spread to other parts of the body.
  • Immunotherapy- Helps the immune system fight cancer. There are many forms of immunotherapy: immune checkpoint inhibitors, T-cell transfer therapy, monoclonal antibodies, treatment vaccines and immune system modulators.
  • Targeted therapy- Targets the changes in cancer cells that help them grow, divide, and spread. There are two types of targeted therapy: small-molecule drugs and monoclonal/therapeutic antibodies. This helps the immune system destroy cancer cells, stop cancer cells growing and stop signals from blood vessels to tumour, alongside other ways of killing the tumour cell.
  • Hormone therapy- Slows or stops the growth of breast and prostate cancers that use hormones to grow. This therapy can also be used in adjunvant or neoadjunvant therapy. It lessens the chance that the cancer will return or stop/slow its growth.
  • Stem cell transplants – Procedures that restore blood-forming stem cells in cancer patients who have had theirs destroyed by very high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Biomarker testing- Is a way to look for genes, proteins, and other substances (called biomarkers or tumor markers) that can provide information about cancer.
Image Source: https://www.bartscancer.london/general-news/2018/02/storming-cancer-shortlisted-for-cancer-research-uks-grand-challenge-award/

The future of cancer treatments

New approaches to tame the immune system in the fight against cancer are getting us closer to a future where cancer becomes a curable disease. Personalized vaccines, cell therapy, gene editing and microbiome treatments are four technologies that will change the way cancer is treated.

In recent years, there has been a surge of new technologies aiming to help the immune system identify and attack tumours, a field known as immuno-oncology. These technologies could make a big difference in the way we treat cancer, taking us closer to being able to ‘cure’ this disease.

Additional cancer treatment innovations are on the horizon. For example, recent research is creating optimism that, one day, there may be targeted treatments for so-called “undruggable” cancer targets.

CRISPR/Cas9 has changed the field of gene editing by making it much simpler and faster to modify DNA sequences with high precision. One of the first medical applications of this technology could be in cancer. 

By comparing the DNA sequences of the tumour and of healthy cells, the company can identify multiple cancer mutations and select the ones that are more likely to provoke a strong reaction from the immune system. The vaccines are given in the form of messenger RNA, a molecule that gives cells the instructions to create a particular protein, in this case a cancer antigen that primes the immune system against the tumour.

Breakthroughs in cancer research

The following are some examples of the current advances in cancer research:

  • The protein coating on the outer surface of cancer cells could potentially be blocked. This means that, this will prevent cancer cells from spreading around the body; this could stem the beginning of upcoming treatments.
  • Research carried out by a large collaborative group of cancer researchers from around the world, has shown that combining immunotherapy with a drug called TNF (tumour necrosis factor) could eradicate tumours that were otherwise unaffected by immunotherapy.
  • Scientists are ready to start clinical trials for a new cancer vaccine thanks to a recent research breakthrough. The team, led by Associate Professor Kristen Radford in Queensland, Australia, hope that they will be able to begin clinical trials within the next three years.
  • A cheap roundworm drug has been found to enhance the effects of chemotherapy in prostate cancer. Scientists have tested close to 1000 existing medicines and discovered that a cheap drug commonly used to treat parasitic worm infection could be a game-changing treatment for prostate cancer.

Closing words

Ultimately, cancer research will never stop as cells will continue to mutate, and form different forms of cancer. However, the immediate problem in the attempt to eradicate cancer is funding and the complexity of decoding different cancer genomes. 

We can educate the population on the risk factors associated with cancer, to minimise cancer cases in the future.

On a lighter note, I thank you for reading my presentation and I hope it was informative and engaging!

Written by Malick, a Year 11 Student at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy

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