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23 Groundbreaking Cancer Discoveries That Could Save Your Life

Cancer killed more than 600,000 people last year, but thanks to exciting scientific discoveries, we'll see that number drop and keep dropping.

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Advances in immunotherapy

Among the completely reassuring things scientists wish you knew about cancer is the progress being made to eradicate this disease, in which abnormal cells multiply and take over in the body. Last year there were over 1,685,000 cases of cancer diagnosed, and nearly 600,000 people died. Standard therapies so far have included surgery, radiation to kill the cells, and chemotherapy, which alters the DNA of cancer cells to stop them from reproducing. But radiation and chemo damage healthy cells too, so researchers have been looking for better treatments. New immunotherapy drugs use the patient’s own immune cells to attack cancer. Stephen Hunger, MD, chief of the Division of Oncology, chief of the Division of Pediatric Oncology, and director of the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells us about two of the exciting immunotherapy treatments approved this year: “Inotuzumab uses an antibody to recognize leukemia cells and deliver a toxin selectively to these cells, thereby killing them with many fewer side effects than seen with standard chemotherapy drugs,” Dr. Hunger says. Another effective new therapy is a drug called blinatumomab. “This drug essentially acts as a link to bring T-cells into contact with malignant B-cells, enabling them to kill the leukemia cells,” he says.

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First-ever gene therapy

The biggest cancer breakthrough of the year is FDA approval of the first gene therapy drug, developed at CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania to treat young people with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) when all other treatments have failed. “CAR T-cell therapy involves removing healthy T-cells from a patient’s body and genetically modifying them,” Dr. Hunger says. After they’ve been reprogrammed to identify cancer, “these cells are then re-infused into the patient and they travel throughout the body and find the [cancer] cells, attack, and kill them.” The T-cells also reproduce to work long-term. Dr. Hunger calls the results “remarkably effective:” In clinical trials, 83 percent of patients went into remission within three months, with about half remaining healthy two years later. “This is also quite remarkable, as less than 10 to 20 percent of children with relapsed or refractory ALL are alive after two years with standard therapies,” Dr. Hunger says. There are some side effects, such as high fever, so more work needs to be done. “New efforts are directed to understanding how physicians can integrate this into the ‘toolbox’ of therapies they use for children, adolescents, and young adults with ALL,” he says.

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More gene therapies

While some are fighting to end pediatric cancer, other doctors are working for older victims of the disease as well. Swift on the heels of the first gene therapy drug for leukemia sufferers came an FDA approval of the first for adults as well, specifically those with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The treatment works the same way, with T-cells removed and pumped up with cancer-fighting “chimeric antigen receptors” (CARs) to locate, latch onto, and destroy cancer cells, while reproducing in the body to continue to their attack. “Treating patients with CAR T-cells has been one of my most exciting professional experiences, and the FDA approval of this therapy offers hope and optimism to a subset of patients whose other treatments have failed them,” says Caron A. Jacobson, MD, medical director of the Immune Effector Cell Therapy Program at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. “It is extremely rewarding to be able to offer a new therapy to patients who had virtually no other options just 12 to 24 months ago.” Now that CAR T-cell therapy has been shown to work on blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, researchers will be looking into how they can fight the solid tumors of other cancers.

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A Fitbit for cancer

If you thought all your fitness tracker knew was these 9 surprising things about you, check out the latest gadgets for detecting and tracking cancer. Optical imaging using light to see inside the body, like a Fitbit does, may be helpful in seeing how breast cancer patients are responding to chemotherapy. Well before MRI or ultrasound can visualize a tumor shrinking, a handheld device developed at Boston University uses near-infrared light to measure changes in the tumor’s blood supply and metabolism. If the chemo’s not working, doctors can make changes much earlier, which would save patients time and nasty side effects. “We started to think, ‘Wow, there’s probably a lot of biology happening during treatment that hasn’t been studied because the tools haven’t been available to measure patients at the right time points,'” researcher Darren Roblyer, PhD, told the American Cancer Society. He’s also developing a wearable device that would fit over the breast to give continual measurements. Other advancements in optical imaging are emerging as well, such as this probe that uses light to tell surgeons whether they’ve removed all the cancer cells during surgery.

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New cancer research sharing

Everyone should know these hopeful cancer statistics—and cloud sharing may help doctors know more cancer data, too. According to policymakers at the National Cancer Institute, a major driving force of new breakthroughs is shared information, which can best happen through a new cloud-based data sharing center. To that end, the University of Chicago, along with other institutions, is setting up protected cancer research networks that allow collaboration while still keeping health data secure. “We can store our data in a HIPAA-protected environment and share it with collaborators across the continent and around the world,” co-principal investigator Olufunmilayo I. Olopade, MD, the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, said in a press release. “I think it will be absolutely revolutionary for how physicians do research.”

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Colorectal cancer wake-up call

Don’t think that because you’re under 50, you’re immune to the disease. A disturbing increase in rates of colorectal cancers among younger adults was discovered this year in a study led by the American Cancer Society. According to the research, those born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer as those born in 1950. Although rates of these cancers are declining overall due to better screening among older adults, the increase among younger ones is disturbing. “Trends in young people are a bellwether for the future disease burden,” lead researcher Rebecca Siegel, MPH, said in a press release. “Educational campaigns are needed to alert clinicians and the general public about this increase to help reduce delays in diagnosis, which are so prevalent in young people, but also to encourage healthier eating and more active lifestyles to try to reverse this trend.” Although the reason for this rise isn’t yet known, the silver lining is that this knowledge may be a wake-up call for doctors and patients, and could lead to earlier diagnosis. Watch out for the silent symptoms of colon cancer you might be missing.

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The gut’s role in cancer

One way a healthy gut microbiome could add years to your life is by moderating your response to immunotherapy treatment for cancer. A study by researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that patients with stage-four melanoma treated with a certain immunotherapy had better results with a more diverse group of “good” bacteria in their digestive system (microbiome). Because these good bacteria influence your immune response to threats, a healthier microbiome could mean a better response to treatments that use a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. And the best news? Your microbiome can adapt to lifestyle modifications like diet, exercise, and probiotic use. “You can change your microbiome, it’s really not that difficult, so we think these findings open up huge new opportunities,” says study leader Jennifer Wargo, MD, associate professor of Surgical Oncology and Genomic Medicine.

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Genetic testing on cancer

You’ve probably heard of the BRCA gene for breast and ovarian cancer (learn about why these women are grateful for their BRCA diagnosis). But, the future of cancer diagnosis and treatment will likely involve screening patients for many other genetic alterations. Part of an initiative called precision medicine, this approach looks at each individual to see how he or she can best be treated. Recent advances in this area include the first extensive FDA-approved test to detect hundreds of biomarkers in cancer patients’ tumors, which can help doctors quickly know how to attack the disease. In other news, researchers have discovered the survival rate of deadly pancreatic cancer is linked to alterations in four genes. “The research helps us to understand how the molecular features of pancreatic cancer impact prognosis on an individual level and gives us more facts to guide patients, and importantly, to design future research studies,” study co-author Aram Hezel, MD, a gastrointestinal cancer expert and chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Wilmot Cancer Institute, said in a press release.

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Sugar and cancer

Could cutting out sugar lead to a reduction in your cancer risk? New research says it’s possible. (Find out what else happens to your body when you stop eating sugar.) For decades, researchers have known that cancer cells use a much higher amount of glucose to fuel their growth than normal cells. Called the Warburg effect, scientists weren’t sure if the abnormal way the cells use sugar caused the cancer or was a result of it. Researchers in Belgium released the results of a nine-year project that found that sugar “awakens” cancer cells, leading to a vicious cycle of growth. Although it’s been proposed for years that denying the cancer cells sugar could “starve” and kill them, this clarification of the link between sugar and cancer could lead to ways to actually make this happen without starving healthy cells, too. Some are already on the horizon: Researchers at the University of Colorado have found a way to shut down cancer cells’ ability to gobble up the glucose by switching off certain genes they need to do so.

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Personalized cancer vaccine

One of the ways to prevent cancer is by getting the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Now other vaccine treatments are on the horizon, too—and in this case, they’re targeted for an individual cancer patient’s tumor. In a pilot study at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the first successful personalized cancer vaccine was used to successfully treat six melanoma patients. The researchers sequenced each tumor’s DNA to look for mutated antigens, or neoantigens, for immune cells to attack. The vaccine trained the immune cells how to identify the cells to destroy. “We’ve long recognized in cancer that every patient’s tumor is different,” said Catherine J. Wu, MD, physician-researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “With recent advances in technology, it’s now becoming possible to create a therapy that’s suited to target an individual’s tumor. We provided proof-of-principle that a personal vaccine tailored to a patient’s tumor can be produced and generates highly specific responses to that patient’s tumor after vaccination.” More research is needed, but the breakthrough is promising.

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Almost half of cancer deaths are preventable

A new study from the American Cancer Society estimates that a whopping 45 percent of cancers are preventable. The analysis looked at available data for 26 cancer types and risk factors including cigarette smoking, excess body weight, alcohol use, consumption of red and processed meat, low consumption of fruits and vegetables, dietary fiber, and physical inactivity. Forty-two percent of all cases and 45 percent of cancer deaths were attributable to those factors. This could affect a huge number of the nearly 40 percent of men and women who’ll be diagnosed with cancer in their life. “Our findings emphasize the continued need for widespread implementation of known preventive measures in the country to reduce the morbidity and premature mortality from cancers associated with potentially modifiable risk factors,” the authors wrote. Don’t miss these additional ways you can cut your cancer risk, according to science.

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New cervical cancer screening

If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve had a Pap test, the original cervical cancer screening. If you’re over 30, you may have also had the newer HPV test, a cervical swab that screens for the DNA of cancer-causing strains of human papillomavirus (HPV). But there may be an even better test on the horizon: In a recent study, a new epigenetics-based screening, which looks for the way genes are expressed, found 100 percent of the cancers that developed in a test of 15,000 women; the HPV test finds about 50 percent of cancers, and PAP smears catch about 25 percent. “This really is a huge advance in how to deal with HPV-infected women and men, numbering in the billions worldwide. It is going to revolutionize screening,” said study author Professor Attila Lorincz of Queen Mary University of London in a press release. Even better: The researchers say it will be cheaper than a Pap smear. But while the new test is exciting, many still want to see the results repeated in a larger study. Here’s why you should still see your GYN every year, even if you don’t need a Pap smear.

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Genetic cause for lethal prostate cancer discovered

Men with prostate cancer have a very good survival rate: 98 percent survive at least 10 years post-diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. But for men with prostate cancer that’s spread to other parts of the body and is resistant to hormone therapy, the prognosis isn’t nearly as good. Now, a study in mice might have found a way to combat the deadly form of the disease. Researchers figured out which molecule makes the cancer aggressive and therapy-resistant—and they’ve found a compound that can stop it. “We need fresh strategies to prevent prostate cancer from turning deadly,” said study author Michael Freeman, PhD, co-director of the Cancer Biology Program in the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai, in a press release. Learn what doctors haven’t told you about prostate cancer.

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A new way to detect cancer

Although blood tests can reveal some signs of cancer, they can’t actually diagnose it. But that may be changing: Instead of looking for mutations (changes to the DNA itself), researchers are now looking for epigenetic changes (changes in whether genes are turned on or off) in the blood. Then using artificial intelligence to build algorithms, the scientists have been able to successfully match different kinds of cancer with blood samples. There’s still a lot more work to be done, but this discovery could conceivably identify cancer before you even have symptoms. “A major problem in cancer is how to detect it early—it has been a ‘needle in the haystack’ problem,” said study author Daniel De Carvalho, PhD, Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Canada, in a press release. “We are very excited at this stage.” Find out the 14 cancer warning signs your doctor should never ignore.

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New treatment for aggressive breast cancer

Researchers have turned up an exciting new approach to immunotherapy that can treat aggressive “triple-negative” breast cancer—it’s one that often targets younger women. In research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, doctors found that using a specific combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy encouraged the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer, reducing the risk of death and disease progression by up to 40 percent. “These results are a massive step forward,” said study author Peter Schmid, MD, PhD, professor of Cancer Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and clinical director of the Breast Cancer Centre at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in a press release. “We are changing how triple-negative breast cancer is treated in proving for the first time that immune therapy has a substantial survival benefit.” Find out which state has the highest rate of breast cancer in the country.

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New evidence of cell phones’ potential cancer-causing effects?

Could the urban legend that cell phones give you cancer be true? In a recent study, male mice exposed to the type of radio frequency radiation used in 2G and 3G phones developed cancerous heart tumors. But the researchers themselves—as well as the FDA—says to take this info with a grain of salt: The radiation levels the mice were exposed to were much higher, for a longer time, and over more of their bodies than the equivalent human cell phone use. Plus, the study took so long to complete that the technology they were mimicking is now out-of-date. Still, “we believe that the link between radio frequency radiation and tumors in male rats is real,” said study author John Bucher, PhD, National Toxicology Program senior scientist, in a press release. Michael Wyde, PhD, lead toxicologist on the studies, also noted that “a major strength of our studies is that we were able to control exactly how much radio frequency radiation the animals received, something that’s not possible when studying human cell phone use, which has often relied on questionnaires.” Check out 28 things you think you cause cancer but don’t.

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Cancer vaccine discovered

Science is getting closer to eliminating tumors, including cancer that has spread. In an exciting development, researchers at Stanford found that injecting mice with certain immune-stimulating agents encouraged the mice’s immune systems to destroy not only localized tumors, but cancer that had metastasized to other parts of the body. “Our approach uses a one-time application of very small amounts of two agents to stimulate the immune cells only within the tumor itself,” said study author Ronald Levy, MD, professor of oncology, in a press release. “In the mice, we saw amazing, body-wide effects, including the elimination of tumors all over the animal.” Best yet, it works for all kinds of cancers. “I don’t think there’s a limit to the type of tumor we could potentially treat, as long as it has been infiltrated by the immune system,” Levy said. Human trials are ongoing. Here are 37 ways to cut your cancer risk, according to science.

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Aspirin may prevent ovarian cancer

You know aspirin can help guard against heart attacks: Now it appears those who take it may have a lower risk for certain cancers, as well. A recent study found that taking a daily low-dose aspirin was associated with a 23 percent reduction in ovarian cancer risk. The same was not true for other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Women who frequently took ibuprofen over a long period of time (10 tablets a week for many years) had an increased risk of ovarian cancer. “We’re not quite at the stage where we could make the recommendation that daily aspirin use lowers ovarian cancer risk,” said study author Shelley Tworoger, PhD, of the Moffitt Cancer Center, in a press release. “We need to do more research. But it is definitely something women should discuss with their physician.” Attention women: You may be missing this common sign of ovarian cancer.

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New treatment for lung cancer

The most deadly cancer is lung cancer—partly because most patients have a late stage of the disease by the time they’re diagnosed. But in another score for immunotherapy, several breakthroughs in treatment this year may improve outcomes. The first immunotherapy drug to treat small-cell lung cancer, Opdivo, was approved by the FDA in August. Earlier in the year, a pair of studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed how other new immune therapies could improve survival, tumor size, and relapse rates in lung cancer. In one study, combination immunotherapy and chemo reduced the risk of death by 51 percent over those who just had chemo. “Using this combination therapy to treat patients with such an aggressive disease could be an important advance in keeping patients alive and well for longer,” said study author Leena Gandhi, MD, PhD, director of the thoracic medical oncology program at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health, in a press release. These are the 9 uncommon signs of lung cancer you need to know about.

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Help for chemo’s side effects on the brain

With increasing survival rates for cancer patients comes an increase in the long-lasting side effects of their treatments. One of the most frequently reported is “chemo brain”—neurological symptoms that can make cancer survivors feel unfocused, forgetful, and disoriented. More than half of cancer survivors suffer from cognitive impairment months or even years after the cancer is gone. But researchers at Stanford have uncovered how one chemo drug methotrexate causes malfunction in three types of brain cells—and better, how to block the mechanism. “Cognitive dysfunction after cancer therapy is a real and recognized syndrome,” study author Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences said in a press release. “We are now homing in on potential interventions to promote normalization of the disorders induced by cancer drugs. There’s real hope that we can intervene, induce regeneration, and prevent damage in the brain.” Check out these 34 inspiring cancer quotes from survivors.

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FDA approves a drug that can treat several types of cancer

In another out-of-the-box idea to battle cancer, the FDA recently allowed accelerated approval for a drug, Vitrakvi, that doesn’t target specific cancers based on their original location in the body. Instead, it treats a specific gene marker present in different kinds of cancers. “Today’s approval marks another step in an important shift toward treating cancers based on their tumor genetics rather than their site of origin in the body,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD said in a statement. “Its approval reflects advances in the use of biomarkers to guide drug development and the more targeted delivery of medicine. We now have the ability to make sure that the right patients get the right treatment at the right time.” Best yet, it’s available for pediatric patients in a yummy syrup. Read about the 15 things cancer doctors do to avoid cancer.

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Veggies prevent colon cancer

Here’s another reason to eat your vegetables: They could save you from colon cancer. A recent study has shown that mice fed a diet enriched with a specific veggie compound did not develop gut inflammation or colon cancer. The compound turns up in many vegetables, including kale, cabbage, and broccoli, and works by activating a protein that helps keep your gut healthy. Although the positive effects of veggies against cancer have been studied before, up until now “there is very little literature on which vegetables are the most beneficial or why,” study author Dr. Gitta Stockinger, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, said in a press release. “Now that we’ve demonstrated the mechanistic basis for this in mice, we’re going to investigate these effects in human cells and people. In the meantime, there’s certainly no harm in eating more vegetables!” Find out the 6 silent signs of colon cancer you might be missing.

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New hope for deadly pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most lethal types of the disease, with a five-year survival rate of only 8 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. But new research that tested a specific chemotherapy regimen of four different drugs extended patients’ lives by almost two years. The research was presented at the 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting. “Pancreatic cancer is notoriously aggressive and typically has a poor prognosis, so it is a major win to find that a new treatment regimen significantly improves survival for patients with this disease,” said ASCO’s Andrew Epstein, MD, in a statement. You need to know the 8 pancreatic cancer symptoms you’ve probably been ignoring.