From immunotherapy to personalised medicine, scientists have made various major breakthroughs in the field of cancer research over the years, and have continued to push boundaries of science. In this article, we take a look at three of recent developments in cancer medicine.

1. “Biopsy” of the blood detects cancer recurrence with precision

Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London have developed a revolutionary blood test that can detect cancer recurrence long before tumours are visible on conventional radiological imaging. The liquid biopsy works by detecting traces of free-floating mutated DNA that have been released into the bloodstream by cancer cells.

DNA samples from the tumours of 100 patients with non-small cell lung cancer were taken and analysed to create personalised genomic templates for each candidate. Researchers then conducted six- to eight- weekly blood tests to see if traces of cancer DNA re-emerged, and found that blood tests were positive when tumours were only 0.3 cubic millimetres in volume.

According to cancer geneticist and lead researcher Professor Charlie Swanton, the circulating tumour DNA had great precision, citing that DNA levels reduce to undetectable levels within 48 hours of surgery when patients remain in remission, while rising levels were observed in patients whose cancer later recurred, indicating that the cancer remained or had metastasised.

“This allows us to identify high risk patients,” he said. “We have predictive value of 92% that your cancer is going to recur within 350 days.”

“Even if only a fraction of cancers that are currently detected at a lethal stage will in future be detected at an early curable stage this will represent a great benefit in lives saved,” added Nitzan Rosenfeld of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, who predicts that “most if not all” cancer patients will receive DNA-based tests in the future.

2. Potential cancer drug-delivering system developed using sperm

Though most anti-cancer therapies target are developed to target cancer cells, they can have damaging effects on other cells and organs which may result in severe side effects.

However, researchers from the Chemnitz University of Technology and Institute for Integrative Nanosciences in Germany have discovered a breakthrough method to deliver anti-cancer drugs to specific parts of the female reproductive system to treat gynaecological cancer, endometriosis as well as pelvic inflammatory diseases – by using sperm.

Sperm is able to swim thanks to its flagellum, and is suited to navigate in environments such as inside the female reproductive tract. Additionally, sperm membranes offer a convenient method to package and deliver drugs to cells of the targeted issue by avoiding dilution or break-down from the body’s immune system and enzymes.

Tumor-targeted drug delivery by a sperm-hybrid micromotor. Photo credits: Scientifist/ Cornell University
Tumor-targeted drug delivery by a sperm-hybrid micromotor. Photo credits: Scientifist/ Cornell University

The team soaked bovine sperm cells in the chemotherapy medication doxorubicin, and built an “iron suit” for the sperm using a form of 3D printing called nanolithography. The harness had four flexible arms or micromotors that would bend and release the sperm when in contact with the target cell. By using magnetic fields, the scientists successfully guided the sperm in a specific direction, and were able to deliver the anti-cancer drugs into lab-grown HeLa cancer cells in a petri dish.

"Although there are still some challenges to overcome before this system can be applied in in-vivo environments, sperm-hybrid systems may be envisioned to be applied in in-situ cancer diagnosis and treatment in the near future," the researchers said.

3. Improving glioblastoma patients’ survival with vaccine-chemotherapy combination

The medial survival rate for patients with glioblastoma (GBM) is less than 15 months, but the combination of a vaccine targeting cytomegalovirus (CMV) antigen pp65 and high-dose temozolomide may improve the overall survival in patients, according to a study by researchers from Duke University.

"The clinical outcomes in GBM patients who received this combination were very striking,” said lead author Kristen Batich.

CMV has an affinity for GBM, and viral proteins are expressed in approximately 90% of these tumours. Taking advantage of this, researchers used the virus as a proxy to spotlight the tumour for the immune system by targeting the virus with pp65-specific dendritic cells.

The study was conducted on 11 patients who received the combination therapy, and revealed that candidates had a median progression-free survival of 25.3 months and a median overall survival rate of 41.1 months. Three of the candidates also remained progression-free for over seven years after diagnosis.

“The dose-intensified temozolomide induces a strong state of lymphopenia,” Batich explained. “With that comes an opportune moment to introduce an antigen-specific vaccine, which redirects the immune system to put all hands on deck and fight that target.”

The results are encouraging, however, the single-arm study has only a small cohort, and further robust trials will be necessary to confirm these findings. MIMS

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