The Cutting Edge of Cancer Research
One of humankind’s oldest battles has been the fight against cancer. Ever since Hippocrates first named the disease after the veined underbelly of the crab, we’ve struggled to understand and eradicate cancer in all its forms. While the day when we can declare our society ‘cancer free’ may still be a long way off, doctors and scientists are devising increasingly novel and effective ways of killing it at early stages. Here we take a look at the cutting edge of cancer treatment, the methods, effectiveness and theory of each new method:
It sounds like something from a Sci-Fi film: a frightening dystopia where our care is devoid of human interaction and reliant on cold, unfeeling machines. But studies show new algorithms used in cutting-edge computer models may be better at diagnosing a course of treatment than the most-seasoned health professional. Over the course of two years, researchers at Maastricht University in The Netherlands monitored the progress of 121 lung cancer patients. In the three cases it was used, the computer model outperformed the experts with a blistering degree of accuracy.
The results are unsurprising: we now know that cancer is a complex thing, its growth dictated by a patient’s genes and a host of other factors. In the same way meteorologists now trust computers to predict weather systems more than their own intuition, we’re starting to realise that cancer is too complicated to be beaten by a harassed professional. The day soon may come when this predictive treatment is the standard method used.
In a recent article on the BBC, it was reported that Israeli and Chinese scientists had developed a way to diagnose stomach cancer simply by analysing patient’s breath. From a study sample of 130 patients, the method was found to have a 90% accuracy rate – suggesting future research may yield a simple breathalyser test hospitals can deploy. Unlike most conditions, cancer appears to have a signature smell – leading one group of German researchers to claim sniffer dogs may one day be capable of detecting it. But smart money currently lies on a robust new form of breath-analysis, perhaps allowing the early diagnosis that so often eludes stomach cancer sufferers.
As cancer research improves, we’ve come to realise how near-unique most cancer types really are. For example, breast cancer is now thought to be comprised of 10 entirely separate diseases – with each variant responding differently to different treatments. Although it remains expensive, gene sequencing is currently our best hope for cataloguing all the different permutations of cancer and personalising treatment.
In this story for the New York Times, reporters reveal how a complete DNA/RNA sequencing managed to isolate the single gene flooding a patient with enough protein to trigger leukaemia. Thanks to this knowledge, doctors were able to recommend a drug previously thought only suitable for cancer of the kidneys. While sequencing each and every patient remains prohibitively expensive, by analysing the genes of hundreds of thousands of cancer sufferers and comparing them to healthy individuals, scientists may be able to break cancer – and its treatments – down into narrower ‘types’; allowing far more targeted treatment than we’re currently capable of.
In October last year, tech-site Wired carried a story that made health-watchers sit up and listen. As part of an attempt to crowdsource research into cancer types, a new website has been launched allowing internet denizens to analyse images of cancer – with the end goal of identifying and treating whole new types of the illness. By farming out millions of pictures to Internet users to compare and report on, researchers are cutting the time they would otherwise have to spend doing it themselves. In the same way that NASA routinely allows the world at large to trawl their data for signs of new exo-planets, researchers are hoping this will return within day’s results that would otherwise take weeks or months. Could this be the start of a whole new method of diagnosis? Preliminary results are looking good.
Visit the Cancer Research UK website for more information and help on breast cancer and other forms.