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Striving Against Cancer, Sometimes Winning

6 March 2017
Giulio Prisco

Cancer News

This week’s Pulse is mostly focused on the war on cancer. Researchers all over the world are striving against the disease, which is still feared as a death sentence. Sometimes, the research results are very promising, as shown by the recently announced results of a cancer cell immunotherapy trial.

But other times cancer research meets with roadblocks and setbacks, as shown by other less encouraging cancer cell immunotherapy news. In 2017, cancer still kills. At the same time, it’s important to bear in mind that research IS making progress.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is becoming an important tool of cancer research. AI can already help in early detection of cancer and assist physicians in finding helpful hints in huge banks of medical literature and clinical data. Perhaps future AI systems will take an even more active role, and directly find cures and personalized therapies that will eventually defeat cancer.

Other fronts of futuristic cancer research are gene editing, which recently resulted in a breakthrough for a sickle cell disease patient, and nanotechnology. Perhaps swarms of nanobots will swim in the bloodstream of our grandchildren and permanently rid them of cancer and other diseases.

Progress in wet life sciences, with help from dry technologies, is accelerating. Stay tuned for next week’s Pulse, which will cover the first “artificial embryo” created by Cambridge scientists, and other encouraging news. In the meantime, here's this week’s Pulse:

New hope for cancer patients? Biotech company and drug maker Kite Pharma unveiled positive - some say spectacular - results from its first CAR-T trial in cancer patients. CAR-T is a generic name for gene therapy treatments where immune cells are extracted from a patient and engineered in the lab to recognize and fight cancer cells. The treatment used in the trial has induced remission in one third of terminal patients with aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a very nasty type of cancer. It’s worth noting that the Kite Pharma stock jumped up on Nasdaq immediately after the announcement, which indicates interest from savvy pharma investors.

Yes, but the road ahead is still hard. In related but less encouraging news, biotech company and drug maker Juno Therapeutics announced the suspension of its own CAR-T trial due to “the unfortunate and unexpected toxicity” of their therapy, which seems to have caused several deaths in the test group of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The Juno setback is a powerful reminder that, notwithstanding promising research results, curing cancer is still a hard challenge.

Can AI help? Perhaps Artificial Intelligence (AI) will one day come to the rescue of cancer patients. In the meantime, spotting cancer before it spreads is the best way to fight the disease, and Google’s AI researchers are working on AI-powered early cancer detection methods. The search giant’s “deep learning” AI algorithms show potential  to automatically detect and localize small tumors and metastases in gigapixel microscopy images.

Elementary, my dear Watson. If Google has Sherlock, IBM has Watson. IBM’s AI system - yes, the same Watson that made news headlines a few years ago beating human champions at Jeopardy! - has gone to medical school and is now assisting oncologists to make more informed treatment decisions. Watson for Oncology analyzes a patient’s medical information against a vast array of data and expertise to provide evidence-based treatment options, based on expert training by Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) physicians.

Successful gene therapy for sickle cell disease. The growing power of gene therapy is shown by a recent breakthrough achieved by French scientists who tweaked the DNA of a French teenager with sickle cell disease, a severe blood disease, enabling the patient’s bone marrow to produce healthy blood cells. The study results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, indicate that the patient shows “no sign of disease” since the treatment.

Fast-forwarding to the future, we salute the coming nanobots. In a hopefully not too far future, nanobots - tiny cell-sized programmable molecular machines developed in nanotechnology labs - will roam our bodies and clear cancers away. Scientists at Philips Innovative Technologies in Hamburg, Germany, are developing magnetically controlled swarms of microscopic robots that might one day help fight cancer inside the body. In an open access article published in Science Robotics, the researchers proposed applications of their research work to adaptive radiation treatment in cancer therapy, based on selective switching of radioactive sources distributed inside a tumor.

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