Over 39 percent of all Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lives. While cancer can be relatively easily treated if caught at an early stage, in many cases it can be deadly.
Jan van Deursen, a cancer researcher and cofounder of Unity Biotechnology from Rochester, Minnesota, shares some of how cancer can be treated today and in the future, offering hope to those suffering from this devastating disease.
Surgery is the oldest form of cancer treatment and is very effective on solid tumors that have not yet spread throughout the body. Surgery removes the tumor and any tissue nearby. Surgery can still be highly effective if the tumor has spread beyond its site of origin, especially when combined with chemotherapy, radiation, or other treatments.
It should be noted that surgery can also play an important role in cancer diagnosis, or in relieving various cancer side effects.
Chemotherapy uses strong chemicals to kill fast-growing cancer cells and can be a highly effective form of cancer treatment, without the need for other treatments such as surgery or radiation.
In many cases, however, chemotherapy is used together with other types of treatments. Chemotherapy can be used to prepare the patient for further treatment. For instance, in some cases, the tumor must be shrunk with chemotherapy so that the oncologist can use radiation therapy or surgery. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. In other cases, chemotherapy can help eliminate cancer cells that were missed during surgery or that already covertly spread to other parts of the body at the time of surgery.
However, as many people are aware, chemotherapeutics often also affect a significant proportion of healthy cells, thereby causing a wide variety of short- and long-term side effects. Short-term side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, diarrhea, fatigue, pain, mouth sores, fever, and easy bruising. It can also cause long-term and permanent side effects like lung damage, infertility, heart problems, and nerve damage.
Research spearheaded by Jan van Deursen brought to light that cells throughout the body can turn into zombie cells and that these cells can accelerate the aging process and cause various age-related diseases. Chemotherapy can accelerate the formation of zombie cells and speed up the aging process itself or diseases of aging. To control these long-term side effects, several biotechnology startup companies are currently working to develop medicines that kill zombie cells in patients receiving chemotherapy.
Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells. This therapy works by using radiation to damage the DNA in cancer cells. If their DNA is damaged, they fail to divide and eventually die. Radiation therapy must be repeated across several days or weeks to be effective.
The two major types of radiation therapy are external beam and internal therapy. External beam means that the patient needs to sit near a large, noisy machine that directs radiation toward their cancer. External beam treatment is used locally on one part of the body.
Internal radiation therapy involves having a radioactive material put inside your body. In some cases, doctors will use liquid treatments, while they will be solid in other cases. Liquid treatments travel throughout the body, meaning that they are effective everywhere, while solid treatments stay in one part of the body.
Like chemotherapy, radiation therapy inflicts collateral damage to a small proportion of healthy cells, causing them to die or turn into zombie cells. So senotherapy, the therapeutic concept that Jan van Deursen developed, could also be beneficial to treat long-term side effects.
Immunotherapy is a biological therapy that uses substances that come from living organisms to treat cancer. Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system defend itself against cancer.
The three major types of immunotherapy are immune checkpoint inhibitors, T-cell transfer therapy, and monoclonal antibodies.
Immune checkpoint inhibitors block a mechanism in the immune system that causes its response to be too strong and allows a better response to cancer.
T-cell transfer therapy involves taking immune cells from the tumor and checking which are the most active against the cancer cells. These immune cells are then grown in batches outside the body and injected intravenously.
Monoclonal antibodies are lab-created proteins that are designed to match up with targets on cancer cells. They can help turn the immune system against attacks from cancer by marking cancer as an invader.
According to Jan van Deursen, cancer immunotherapy is hands down the hottest area in cancer research because of its tremendous promise for therapeutic advances. His discovery that immune cells act as a first line of defense against cancer predicts that the types of cancer that can be treated with immunotherapy will only expand moving forward.
Understanding Cancer Treatment
Today, there are many new forms of cancer treatment. Combined with traditional methods like surgery, these new treatments can help to extend patients’ lifespan, improve quality of life, and reduce the chances that cancer will recur.
Jan van Deursen expects therapeutic advancements to further increase as the pipeline running from basic to applied to clinical cancer research continues to widen. Cancer patients are encouraged to have open discussions with their doctors to see which types of treatment are most appropriate for their disease.