Category Archives: Promising Research

When Cancer Spreads: Understanding Metastasis

By Louise Chang, MD

How does lung cancer reach other areas of my body? Why did breast cancer show up in my bones? What does it mean to have metastatic cancer?

It can be hard to understand how cancer starts in one place and also shows up in other places in the body that are far from where it started. The ability to spread, called metastasis, speaks to the aggressive nature of cancer and the challenge it poses.

Cancer starts from cells in our body that have gone rogue. The body has ways to monitor and dispose of abnormal cells that develop, but cancer cells are able to avoid the body’s defense system. They grow out of control and form into cancerous tumors.

As cancer cells multiply, they can get into the bloodstream and lymph system. This allows the cancer cells to travel and settle in other parts of the body. When cancer spreads like this, it is described as “metastatic” – because cancer cells have moved to a different location in the body. But metastatic tumors are still considered to be the same cancer type as where the cancer first started. This is why breast cancer that has spread to the bone or lungs is still breast cancer.… Continue reading →

Recent progress in cancer research, prevention, and treatment

By Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, FACP

2014 was another banner year for cancer research, particularly in the areas of treatment, prevention, and early detection. While there were several significant spheres of progress, we find the following five major advances particularly noteworthy.   

Targeted therapies

First is the development of new targeted therapies for cancer. Targeted therapies specifically block key molecules that are crucial for cancer cell growth and survival.

The promise of such therapies was first established about 15 years ago by the development of imatinib (Gleevec), which blocks the oncogene (cancer-promoting gene) responsible for development of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), and led to dramatic responses in patients with this cancer. Many more targeted agents have since been developed. This development has been greatly helped in recent years by the sequencing of the human and the cancer genome, which has led to a more complete understanding of genes that drive cancer. 

Targeted agents have transformed modern cancer care by keeping cancer under control for longer periods of time and reducing side effects. However, for all but a handful of patients, cancer is able to develop resistance to targeted therapy over time.

A number of newer, more potent targeted therapies were developed in 2014 that further reduce side effects and help overcome resistance, at least for some time.… Continue reading →

Can we predict who will become addicted to cigarettes?

By Victoria Stevens, PhD

Every day in the United States, nearly 4,000 young people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth and Tobacco Use Fact Sheet. About 1,000 of these kids will go on to become daily smokers, which is the next step on the pathway to becoming addicted to nicotine. Over the course of a year, that is 365,000 new daily smokers. About 60%, or almost 220,000, will still be regular smokers 7 to 9 years later. 

When they tried that first cigarette, did they expect to become dependent on nicotine and unable to quit smoking whenever they want to? Of course not, because they feel young and invincible. In fact, only 3% of the regular smokers expected to be still smoking 5 years later. 

Is nicotine addiction in our genes?

A paper published in JAMA Psychiatry may give some clues to why so many young people continue smoking after that first try. Please note: the research is preliminary, and much more needs to be done before any conclusions are reached and recommendations made. But it’s also intriguing. [more]

A group of scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand used genetics to identify which smokers are likely to become addicted.… Continue reading →

New cancer genes: should I run to be tested?

By Mia M. Gaudet, PhD

Scientists have long cautioned that a family history of cancer increases your personal risk of cancer. Some genetic changes (mutations) that are found in only a few families but tremendously increase risk of cancer (e.g., BRCA1/2) have been known since the 1990s.  These mutations are already used by doctors to identify high risk men and women. However, there is still much of the genetic component of cancer that is unknown. Advances in genetics and technology now allow scientists to look at common changes in the genetic code to see if these changes are related to risk of cancer. 

Researchers are trying to answer these questions. Recently, an international group of cancer investigators linked 74 genetic regions to cancer. These newly identified genetic regions contain common changes in their code (called polymorphisms) that have only small effects on the risk of cancer. But when you combine many polymorphisms, that risk increases.

These new polymorphisms were found by studying the genetic make-up of more than 200,000 people. Women with and without breast cancer, women who had mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2, women with and without ovarian cancer, and men with and without prostate cancer participated in the studies.… Continue reading →

Unlocking the Mysteries of Metastasis

By Charles (Karl) Saxe, PhD

Something patients do not want to hear and physicians do not want to say is “your cancer has metastasized.”

Metastasis is the process whereby cancer cells spread from the site of the original tumor to one or more other places in the body. And with upwards of 90% of all cancer suffering and death associated with metastasis, it is the single most significant challenge to management of the disease.

It’s no wonder, then, that a major goal of cancer research is to understand what causes metastasis and how it happens. [more]

Why is metastasis so deadly?

Many different types of cancers can spread (metastasize), including blood cancers, but it is most often associated with solid tumors (like breast, prostate, or colon). Cancer cells can spread to many different parts of the body, though the most common sites are the lungs, liver, brain, and bones, and each kind of cancer tends to spread to specific sites.

Tumor cells spread through 3 major paths: through lymphatic vessels, through blood vessels, and along surfaces on the inside of the body cavity. Carcinomas typically begin their journey via the lymphatic route, then later spread via blood vessels to their final destination.… Continue reading →

The Reflected Light of Steve Jobs: A Brighter Future for Pancreatic Cancer

By William C. Phelps, PhD

 

Back in May something amazing happened.  A 15-year-old high school freshman from Crownsville, MD, Jack Andraka, won the National Intel Science Fair for creating a more sensitive and much less expensive device to detect pancreatic cancer. This is a remarkable achievement for a high school freshman and could be a game-changing discovery for a deadly cancer if it proves successful in future clinical testing, expected to be a number of years away. Only a few months before that, 17-year-old Angela Zhang from Cupertino, CA, won the Siemens Prize for creating laser-activated nanoparticles which kill cancer cells.  Clearly, a bright light of innovation is growing in our next generation of young scientists.

Among the hundreds of different cancers that affect people today, perhaps none is more dreadful than pancreatic cancer. Doctors cannot easily detect it, nor are there effective treatments available for the majority of patients. We don’t fully understand what causes pancreatic cancer and we know very little about how it can be prevented. The disease is frighteningly aggressive in its growth, with patients often living less than a year after they’re diagnosed. Why has progress been so frustratingly slow for pancreatic cancer when compared with other forms of cancer?  In general, cancer is considered a very complex collection of diseases, and among cancers, pancreatic cancer is one of the more complicated.  It has been an unusually slow process to unravel the biological picture of pancreatic cancer.… Continue reading →

Cancer Drugs: Long Odds and Magic Bullets

By William C. Phelps, PhD

 

During 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 30 completely new therapies (new molecular entities, as opposed to the modification of an old drug), 7 of which were for treatment of different types of cancer.  One of them, the lung cancer drug crizotinib, was decades in the making. For a new drug, that isn’t necessarily a lot of time.

Why does it take so long to get cancer treatments to the patients who need them? The answer lies both in the complexity of cancer and the complexity of the drug development and testing process. [more]

 

Seeking a ‘magic bullet’

A documentary film was released in 2006 called Penicillin: The Magic Bullet and it told the story of the remarkable discovery of what many consider medicine’s first great drug, which saved thousands of lives at the end of the Second World War. Penicillin was a magic bullet because it was extraordinarily safe and magically effective at killing bacteria that often caused lethal infections on the battlefield and beyond. 

It was within this context of hopeful expectations that cancer drug discovery got its start in the 1940s to find the magic bullet to kill cancer cells.… Continue reading →

Expert Voices blog: Cancer Vaccines — Fulfilling the Promise

By William H. Chambers, PhD

 

Vaccines are not new. In fact, there is evidence that the ancient Egyptians and Chinese used them many centuries ago.  Vaccines work by preparing your own immune system to attack invading pathogens, thus preventing disease. Vaccines have helped us make great inroads against many deadly diseases over the past 60 years, when they became used more widely.

Using vaccines against cancer is relatively new, though. Cancer researchers have been trying to make vaccines for tumors, just like others have made vaccines for measles, mumps, and tetanus. [more]


Preventive vaccines

In the case of diseases like measles, the vaccines are made to be given before the disease ever starts. They prevent the disease. And this is one approach researchers have taken with vaccines to prevent cancer.

We now know that about 20% of cancers are started because of infections, mostly from viruses. One virus that causes cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, as well as anal cancer, some head and neck cancers, and genital cancers.

Because researchers have been able to identify strains of HPV that cause the cancers, they have also now been able to develop vaccines that are highly effective in preventing these HPV infections, and thus prevent many of the cancers they cause.… Continue reading →

What we can learn from the Cancer Prevention Studies

By Alpa Patel, PhD

How often do you see someone battling cancer and wish there was something tangible you could do to make a difference?

 

During the past 50 years, more than 2 million volunteer participants have joined the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Studies and have been making a difference simply by giving a little time to fill out surveys and share information about their behaviors, lifestyle, family and personal medical history, and other information. In 1959 and 1982, adult men and women voluntarily joined the Cancer Prevention Studies I, and II, respectively. Their simple actions as study participants have helped us understand much of what we know about how cancer develops in the population.

 

Today, a new generation can do the same, by joining the Cancer Prevention Study-3 (CPS-3), the Society’s newest Cancer Prevention Study. [more]

 

Teasing out lifestyle risks

 

So, how can simply providing information about how you live help researchers understand the causes of cancer and how to prevent it?

 

Studies like CPS-3 enroll large numbers of adults who have never been diagnosed with cancer. These individuals provide information about themselves at the start of the study. Researchers “follow” study participants over time by periodically sending follow-up surveys that ask about changes in lifestyle or behaviors, and about any new health outcomes (like cancer).… Continue reading →

Viruses, Bacteria, and Cancer, or It’s Not All Smoke and Sunlight

By William C. Phelps, PhD

How did you feel the last time someone sneezed in the elevator? Whether it is the common cold or the seasonal flu, we know some illnesses are caused by infections with viruses or bacteria. But what if cancer could be caused by an infection?

Some cancers caused by viruses and bacteria

Although it is not widely realized, 15%-20% of cancers around the world are caused by infectious agents – viruses or bacteria. Fortunately for all of us, the infectious agents linked to cancer are not easily spread from person to person like the common cold virus. It turns out, even when many of these viruses and bacteria infect people, only a small subset will go on to develop cancer. In most cases, we still do not understand why certain people develop cancer and others do not – even though they were also infected. [more]

A number of different types of infections can cause cancer. The Epstein-Barr virus can cause lymphomas (cancers of the lymphatic system) and nasopharyngeal cancer. Kaposi sarcoma virus causes a form of skin cancer in patients with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but only after HIV has already damaged the patient’s immune system.… Continue reading →