Thousands of the top medical doctors, scientists and researchers from around the world gathered at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Chicago, IL, this month to discuss innovative approaches to handling cancer, which affects nearly 40 percent of American men and women.
About 1 in 3 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes and close to 600,000 will die from the disease this year. Dr. Lisa M. Coussens, Knight Cancer Institute, Oregon Health and Science University, is trying to lower those numbers, however she acknowledges that a disease “as heterogeneous as cancer,” meaning there are many forms and not just one disease type, is difficult to manage because every person is different and “their genetics that allowed for that tumor to develop are distinct.”
Dr. Coussens focuses her lab research on immunotherapy and “inflammation in cancer.”
“The research in my lab is predominately focused on the area called inflammation in cancer, where we try to understand how normal immune cells help or hinder tumor development.”
Today, Dr. Coussens’ lab findings support half a dozen clinical trials that are using immune pathways to regulate and target tumor development. Though, the targeted approach is aiming to treat cancer in a way that allows patients to live better, longer lives with the disease, but not necessarily cure it.
“I don't know that cancer is a disease that really can be cured. I think for most of us the goal is management where we think about cancer like other chronic diseases. 50 years ago diabetes was a death sentence now it’s a chronic disease that's managed.”
The treatment of cancer as a chronic disease has become a trend recently within the cancer community – both at a research level and at a healthcare provider level – and is supported by immunotherapies, a new class of drugs that use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
“The best example of that is in melanoma with now two FDA approved drugs that target normal immune cells where once those immune cells are awakened to do their jobs to eradicate tumors patients with aggressive metastatic melanoma are now surviving 2 years, 5 years and the longest survivors at about 10 years,” Coussens said.
One scientist that has helped change the landscape for the treatment of cancer is molecular cell biologist Dr. Tony Hunter, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, who discovered a cellular process that has helped produce 26 approved drugs for cancer treatment.
"Were interested in how cancer cells differ from normal cells and in particular how the internal signaling pathways differ and how potentially one can exploit differences to develop new types of therapy,” Dr. Hunter said.
However the “war on cancer,” is far from over.
“Whatever treatment you devise, the cancer can usually find a way around that treatment because of this heterogeneity there are so many mutations within the cells of the cancer that probably one cell or group of cells that have a particular mutation can now escape the treatment, so that is the main challenge I think,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Carlton.