For decades, chemotherapy has been the number one tool the medical system used to combat the spread of cancer cells from within.
The strategy to combat tumors has been quite straightforward, mainly remove the tumor in any way possible. Standard treatments are a combination of surgery to remove the tumors physically, and the use of chemotherapy to dissolve the tumors from within, to shrink them to nothing. Radiation is used to kill cells that are dividing abnormally (which may later turn into tumors).
And there's no arguing the point that this is, to a significant extent, working. Deaths from cancer have dropped about twenty percent in the U.S alone over the last 20 years.
But, effective or not, these are harsh treatments, that are just as brutal to the patient as to the tumor. Surgeries are dangerous, chemotherapy is almost like slow poison, leaving the patient feeling sick and losing weight, not to mention hair.
That is why many researchers and doctors are excited after a pair of studies were published by the New England Journal of Medicine in June that announced a new type of anti-cancer drug, which works in a completely different way from chemotherapy. This drug helped leukemia patients go up from an average of 50% survival rate to 83% after being treated for two years. Other studies are exploring similar biological solutions to other cancer types.
So, are we getting closer to a future where chemotherapy is obsolete?
Some, like Dr. Tallman, chief of the Leukemia department at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, think that we are indeed. "I think we are moving farther away from chemotherapy and toward therapy that targets cells on a molecular level."
Think of it as the difference between carpet bombing an entire city and using a smart bomb to target individual houses - the difference is huge, and the benefit to the patient is just as big.
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"We're starting to have a more precise understanding of cancer, and so the trend is moving towards using the right drugs with the right timing and tailoring them to the right patients." Says Dr. Demetri, vice president of experimental therapeutics at the Dana-farber Cancer Institute.
Already, says Dr. Demetri, patients suffering from a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST) should not need chemotherapy, as well as some types of lung cancer and melanoma patients.
A study which was recently published showed higher survival rates for patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia (a cancer of the marrow bone) who did not use any type of chemotherapy, only drug therapy.
There are, however, drawbacks to this system, cancer cells are tricky, and may find a way to mutate past these drugs. However, says Dr. Tallman, the field is advancing so quickly that we're easily staying ahead of the game between cancer cells and new drugs.
And another advantage to this system is that instead of using one strategy to attack a tumor, which may be composed of several kinds of cells, doctors can now use several kinds of drugs, each attacking another part of the tumor, and thus fight it on many fronts, with a higher chance of reducing all of it.
And so combinations of drugs, like with HIV, may become the new standard of fighting cancer, allowing the patients undergo more tolerable treatments, less side effects, and more healthy years ahead of them!