Cancer Research Crosses New Frontiers

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In the search to find the cure for various cancers, three new advances in the field are inspiring hope. The first study hails from Oxford Gene Technology, a genetics and diagnostics firm that has developed a prostate cancer test that can distinguish prostate cancer from benign prostate disease and healthy tissue with 90 percent accuracy. Though the new test will not appear in clinics for at least another five years, early indications show it has greater sensitivity and generates fewer false positive results than the currently used PSA test, which can often lead to unnecessary surgical and radiotherapy treatment.

“Though this is a pilot study, it still gives hope for better accuracy since there are serious ongoing problems with the current prostate cancer screening test,” says ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan.

The new test, designed to detect antibodies produced by the immune system to attack prostate cancer-specific proteins, has the potential to become an early screening tool to detect other cancer types as well.

“This is a very intriguing technique,” notes ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross. “There’s no reason to think that prostate cancer is the only cancer making proteins recognized as foreign by the immune system, so this approach has the potential to be used in various cancer screening tests.”

Second, in addition to treating erectile dysfunction, it seems that Viagra (sildenafil) can confer an added benefit to prostate cancer patients, as well. When used in combination with doxorubicin, a standard chemotherapy drug linked to irreversible heart damage, Viagra enhances the drug’s anti-tumor properties while simultaneously mitigating any heart damage. The study, which was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used lab tests on cells and mice and is moving forward to a clinical trial.

Very interested by the novelty as well as the mechanism of action of the study, Dr. Ross believes this research “shows there is some hope on the horizon for better cancer diagnosis and treatment.”

Finally, targeted therapy, or genetic pharmacology, has paved the way in cancer research ever since the first genetic link to cancer was discovered 50 years ago, and according to Jeff Boyd, personalized medicine director of Fox Chase Cancer Center, this approach has “real potential to transform many cancers into chronic diseases.”

How aggressive a cancer will become and whether or not it will metastasize often depends on four to seven genetic alterations that are critical in transforming normal cells into cancerous ones that have their own genetic signature. Gleevac, a drug treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia, was one of the first of its class to use genetic pharmacology to target a specific cancer-causing protein produced by the Philadelphia chromosome, which transformed the once-lethal cancer into a disease patients can manage with just one pill a day.

“These new therapeutic breakthroughs in pharmacogenetics exploit the cancer’s own genetic dissimilarity to the host — the patient, that is — and attack tumors as invading organisms, keeping cancers that would otherwise be fatal under control,” observes Dr. Ross.