The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), one of the world’s largest conferences for the discussion and presentation of cancer research, hosted their annual meeting to discuss the latest discoveries and groundbreaking research in cancer.

Held from 2 to 6 June 2017, in Chicago – with an attendance of more than 30,000 oncology professionals – let’s take a look at some of the biggest discoveries from the meeting.

1. Painless cancer detection

Till date, the gold-standard for diagnosing cancer has been to carry out a tissue biopsy which is generally invasive, time consuming and sometimes even unsuccessful.

As such, the goal has always been to create a blood test to detect cancer which can then be done in routine check-ups. The concept would be similar to the presently available cancer markers albeit with a much greater degree of accuracy, making it a diagnostic rather than screening tool.

At ASCO 2017, two teams of researchers did just that by revealing findings that bring us one step closer to formulating a blood test for diagnosing cancer. While the first team focused on breast, lung and prostate cancer and the second team focused solely on pancreatic cancer, both teams made use of genetic studies to identify traces of cancer DNA within the patient’s blood.

In both studies, the teams were able to detect most of the cancer cases down to the level of gene mutation.

Further research and development are needed to optimise these tests before they can be proven on a clinical level. However, it is certainly an exciting discovery which brings us one step closer to a pain-free and simple form of cancer detection.

2. Online cancer reporting increased survival rates

A team of researchers discovered that patients who reported symptoms and side effects of their cancer treatment via an online system had improved survival rates. Set up as an early reporting system that can used on a home computer, the online tool would serve as a repository and timeline of symptoms of the patient prior to their next appointment.

The logic was simple as patients do not get to meet their doctors for appointments very frequently. Also at times, patients would overlook minor symptoms such as nausea and fatigue. These symptoms would often be passed off and not be reported to their doctors.

On the contrary, it was minor information such as these which pieced together to form a more fluid and coherent understanding of the patient’s disease progress, allowing doctors to better tailor their treatment and manage any complications. In cases of more severe complications such as shortness of breath, nurses were trained to respond to the cases immediately.

Results showed that patients who reported their symptoms online had a five-month improvement in survival, which is a much better outcome than what most cancer drugs are able to provide.

3. Immunotherapy 2.0 – the treatment of the future

Drug combinations are nothing new in the medical field especially in the treatment of cancers. However, the release of next-generation cancer immunotherapies called “checkpoint inhibitors” has sparked resurgence in combination cancer treatment.

Researchers are now beginning to combine the newer checkpoint inhibitors with existing cancer therapies to study their effects for a viable combination. Moreover, checkpoint inhibitors have been showing a great deal of promise and named as the advance of the year.

Also known as Immunotherapy 2.0, these checkpoint inhibitors work by activating the body’s innate immunity and arming it in the fight against cancer. At present, the therapy has been proven to be effective on lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, kidney cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma.

More research is currently underway to target even more types of cancer and supplement its effectiveness with “traditional” cancer therapies. Current examples include Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo.

With the development of new checkpoint inhibitors and combination therapies, we may be approaching a future where cancer treatment can be handled entirely from a medical perspective with minimal need for surgical intervention.

4. The Race to Treat Lung Cancer

Reporting on the results of a Phase III study, Roche unveiled the benefits of their new lung cancer therapy Alecensa in comparison to its closest competitor, Pfizer’s Xalkori. These two big pharmaceutical giants have been actively competing to develop an anti-cancer therapy that is able to successfully slow down the progression as well as side effects of lung cancer.

Data from independent reports now show that Roche’s Alecensa has taken the lead with an increased survival rate by 25.7 months compared to 10.4 months in Pfizer’s Xalkori.

“Nobody imagined it would be possible to delay advanced lung cancer progression by this much,” said lead study author Alice T. Shaw, director at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.

“Most targeted therapies for lung cancer are associated with a median progression-free survival of roughly 12 months.”

Sandra Horning, chief medical officer and head of global product development at Roche said, “Alecensa reduced the risk of disease progression by more than half and reduced the risk of cancer spreading to or growing in the brain, which can have devastating effects for patients,” while noting that the Alecensa has the potential to double the average life expectancy over current treatment modalities.

5. Keeping Breast Cancer at Bay

Roche’s breast cancer drug Perjeta was one of the leading drugs to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer coming into ASCO 2017. But the lacklustre albeit positive results have cast the spotlight instead on Puma Biotechnology, a relatively small company currently working on developing a rival equivalent, neratinib.

Patients who underwent Perjeta treatment saw only a 0.9% difference in recurrence compared to patient treated with neratinib who saw a 2.3% difference instead. While the results are close, this lead by the newly developed neratinib puts it in close competition with Perjeta which has already been approved for use. Currently, neratinib is still awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and new treatments are actively being developed. With the introduction of neratinib, patients will now get a greater freedom of choice while promoting growth and competition amongst pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s hard to believe any patient really needs to do both because the outcomes are so good with both interventions,” says Angela DeMichele, oncologist at University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center.

Especially since Perjeta combination treatment can cost USD 158,000 a year, the choice to switch to neratinib may not be so difficult after all. MIMS

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