Currently, conventional cancer treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and these are the cornerstones and most widely recommended in modern medicine.
Surgical removal of the entire cancer and some normal surrounding area for good margin, is the ideal cancer treatment for the best chance of cure, and minimizing recurrence risk. Surgery is an option only with timely diagnosis and is not possible if the cancer has spread through the blood to various other organs (metastasis).
Chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs) and radiotherapy are also used to kill cancer cells. Newer, more effective, and specific chemotherapy drugs are increasingly available for many cancers, while radiotherapy techniques have been continually refined. However, side effects like hair loss, gut intolerance (nausea, vomiting, bowel changes), and increased susceptibility to infections due to the immune-suppressive effects, are always concerning.
Immunotherapy is the futuristic way of cancer treatment that involves modifying or empowering the immune system in various ways to fight and destroy the cancer cells. Such treatments are also called targeted therapy. Here are some of the new treatments for cancer that are being tried and researched, and can be promising for the future:
- Monoclonal antibodies: These are biological immune system proteins created in the lab and available as injections. They bind to specific targets on cancer cells. Some monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) mark cancer cells so that they will be better seen and destroyed by the body’s immune system.
- CAR T-cell therapy: It consists of taking specific T lymphocyte cells (type of white blood cell) from the patient and adding to it in the laboratory, the gene for a special receptor that binds to a certain specific cancer antigen (protein) which is not present on normal body cells. The special receptor is called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR). Large numbers of the CAR T cells are grown in the laboratory and then injected into the patient. CAR T-cell therapy is used to treat certain blood cancers, and it is being studied in the treatment of other types of cancer.
- Gene editing: In this, a gene from the T cells that encode a protein called PD-1 that tumor cells can use to evade an immune attack, is removed using a technology called CRISPR. This can further enhance CAR T-cell therapy.
- Gene transfer: It is a new treatment modality that introduces new genes into a cancerous cell or the surrounding body cells to cause cell death or slow the growth of the cancer.
- Personalized Cancer Vaccines: By comparing the DNA sequences of the tumor and of healthy cells, cancer mutations can be identified especially the ones more likely to stimulate a strong reaction from the immune system. The vaccines are given in the form of messenger RNA (mRNA- similar technology has been used in some COVID vaccines), which gives cells the instructions to create a particular cancer antigen that trains the immune system against the tumor. Such personalized vaccines could be particularly useful for certain cancer that often carry high numbers of mutations, such as lung and bowel cancer.
- Microbial therapy: Specific bacteria and viruses have been studied which live and thrive in the oxygen-deprived environment of cancer cells. Therefore, these microbes cannot directly harm the human cells but can eat through most of the mass of a tumor. They also alert and stimulate our immune system by making the cancer more visible to the immune cells to destroy it.