What are the most promising new weapons in the war on cancer?

By: Elizabeth Sprouse

This schematic shows a targeted nanoparticle used in a CalTech study that is made of a unique polymer and can make its way to human tumor cells in a dose-dependent fashion.
This schematic shows a targeted nanoparticle used in a CalTech study that is made of a unique polymer and can make its way to human tumor cells in a dose-dependent fashion.
CalTech/Derek Bartlett

Cancer rules as the most lethal ailment in the entire world -- killing 7.4 million people across the globe in 2004 [source: World Health Organization]. It wreaks havoc inside our bodies by causing out-of-control cell growth. However, thanks to advancements in cancer treatments, we're actually moving in the right direction in the war on cancer.

In fact, our survival rates are improving. From 1975 to 1977, the five-year survival rate for cancer was 50 percent. Advance to 1999 to 2005, and that rate grew to 68 percent [source: American Cancer Society]. That's good news. And, as we continue to move forward, there is even more hope. Let's discuss a few of the promising soldiers in this war.

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In one development, those soldiers take the form of itty-bitty robots called nanobots that sneak into our cells to correct the genetic mutations causing cancer. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) took the nanobot concept and combined it with a technology from more than a decade ago called RNA interference. In RNA interference, particles enter a cell and interfere with the genetic code. In this case, it's going after the part containing the mutation. The California team found that they could put these particles inside nanobots, send them inside the bloodstream and start knocking out the cancer mutations. This tactic is now being tested in 15 patients in a phase I clinical trial sponsored by Caldano Pharmaceuticals [source: California Institute of Technology, Hill].

But nanobots are just the beginning of what's happening in the advancements in cancer research.

More of Cancer's Most Promising Treatments

Another treatment area growing in popularity is targeted cancer therapy. In this approach, drugs are developed to stop the overactive cell production inherent in cancer. Results are achieved in different ways depending on the type of cancer. For example, targeted therapy can be used to kill cells, recruit the immune system to attack cancer cells or block enzymes that call for hyperactive growth. Currently, several targeted therapies have been approved by the FDA for use in humans, while others are still in the research phase [source: National Cancer Institute].

In targeted therapy, we mentioned using our own immune systems to fight cancer. As you probably know, our immune systems help protect us from getting sick. Fighting cancer requires that the immune system recognize that cancer cells are functioning abnormally. That's where another hopeful treatment -- immunotherapy -- comes into the picture. Researchers have now discovered that our immune system might be able to fight cancer, especially blood cancers. There are three methods of immunotherapy:

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  • Vaccines: This method triggers a reaction within the body that makes the immune system attack cancer cells.
  • Cell treatment: In this type of immunotherapy, patients receive donor white blood cells that recognize cancer cells as the atypical cells they are and therefore destroy them.
  • Antibodies: This process involves an antigen to cause production of an antibody that marks the cancer cells as "bad," which serves as a signal for the immune system to attack.

[source: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society]

If we somehow create an environment where cancer cells can no longer thrive, the hope is that they'll stop growing and die. This is the thought behind using anti-angiogenesis to treat cancer. Angiogenesis is the growth of new blood vessels, which keep our body's tissues nice and healthy. Our cells need healthy tissue to live and grow, but cancer cells need healthy tissue even more than normal cells. Cut off angiogenesis by messing up the proteins in charge of that process, and you just might cut off cancer cells' ability to keep growing. Using proteins to stop angiogenesis is not particularly new, however. In fact, certain treatments are already in clinical trials, and the FDA just approved a drug that goes after the cells in the lining of blood vessels to work against metastatic cancer [source: Trafton].

To find out what's new with angiogenesis and cancer treatment, keep reading.

Even More Weapons in the War on Cancer

Photomicrographs show how nanotubes can selectively locate and destroy HER2 breast cancer tumors. Tumor cells on the left were treated only with antibodies and then irradiated, while those on the right were treated with a complex of antibodies and nanotubes and then irradiated. Red areas show where cells have been killed.
Photomicrographs show how nanotubes can selectively locate and destroy HER2 breast cancer tumors. Tumor cells on the left were treated only with antibodies and then irradiated, while those on the right were treated with a complex of antibodies and nanotubes and then irradiated. Red areas show where cells have been killed.
National Institute of Standards and Technology

We just mentioned that using proteins to stop angiogenesis isn't particularly new in the treatment of cancer. What is new, though, is an idea coming from collaboration between MIT's Krystyn Van Vliet and Tufts University School of Medicine's Ira Herman. The two are looking at the link between pericytes and our health. Perciytes are the cells that surround our blood vessels and contract. Van Vliet and Herman have shown that this contraction might actually trigger angiogenesis. If that's the case, controlling the contraction could promote or inhibit angiogenesis [source: Trafton].

So far, we've discussed treatments that seem measured and strategic. But what if we could just go in, blow up the cancer and be done with it? Although in laboratory cultures only, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has done just that. Researchers took a two-front approach to the bomb technique and combined an antibody with a nanotube. Essentially, the nanotube goes in and blows up tumor cells, while the antibody gets to work messing up a protein that works on the side of the tumors. Time will tell whether these two warriors can go to battle outside of a cell culture and work in mice [source: Baker].

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Blowing up cancer and every new discovery in this fight helps. As we move forward, we can hope for an ultimate retreat of cancer. That said, more than any new treatment, perhaps the best tactics continue to be prevention and early diagnosis, the last advancements we'll discuss here. Prevention and early diagnosis are keys to survival. We're already familiar with such strategies as mammograms and colonoscopies, but what if we could start detection even earlier? We can. In fact, the team at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA is using nanodiagnostics to test newborns for the potential to develop certain illnesses later in life, including cancer. They do this by taking a tissue or blood sample from the newborn, and then take nanosize pieces of the baby's DNA and flow it over 900,000 genetic sequences already linked to diseases to see if there is a match. Got a match? Then, you have good reason to take certain preventive measures in that baby's life [source: Alexander].

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Sources

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