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New Breakthroughs in Cancer Treatment Provides Reason for Optimism

By the time you finish reading this piece, statistics suggest that another three patients will have lost their battle with cancer. However, recent breakthroughs in cancer treatment may help that number shrink in the future.

While the medical community is far from ready to declare a cure has been found, former President Jimmy Carter has given the world reason to believe. In just August of this year, the announcement came that the former President has begun cancer treatment for Melanoma that had spread into his brain. Now, just four months later, he’s announced that he is cancer free. The rapid healing has raised hope among both the medical field and for patients who suffer from the disease.

Treatments of the Past

Historically, the most common forms of cancer treatments involve surgery, chemotherapy and radiation; all of which can be equally hard on the body as the disease itself. While the risks of surgery are evident, both other forms can be equally damaging. Chemo is a strong drug that goes in to kill cancer cells. It is powerful, but also can affect normal cells too. Radiation therapy uses special equipment in order to target cancer cells with high doses of radiation. This form of treatment has a shelf life, as the body can only safely handle a certain level of radiation before it is no longer possible without permanently damaging the body.

Through these methods, the UK Cancer Research Center estimates that only 50% of cancer patients survive for 10 or more years after initial diagnosis. While the survival rate in the US has gotten better in the past decade the numbers may not be as drastic as you’d believe. As of 2011, men were 1.8% more likely to survive than the decade before, and women were only 1.4% more likely.

Treatment of the Future?

This new solution is called immunotherapy and it works to fight against one of cancer’s biggest affects; its ability to override a patient's immune system by “overriding their ‘immune checkpoints’” as defined by Dr. Catharine Paddock in an article she wrote for Medical News Today. This version of treatment counteracts the override and allows a patient’s own immune system to fight off the cancer directly.

According to Dr. Padmanee Sharma, the scientific director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, “The immune system is very very powerful. But...everyone's immune system has these off switches.”

It’s these off switches, or checkpoints, that this therapy attempts to block.

“...If you block these off switches, you allow the immune system to go for longer periods of time, which is what is necessary to allow for tumor rejection in cancer patients,” she continued.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that immunotherapy treatment has only worked for about 30% of patients. As quickly as doctors are trying to learn, they still need to understand more in order to best treat the problem.

“There are...different types of switches,” Sharmas says. “The drug that President Carter received blocked one of those off switches, but there are many, many other off switches and so we need to understand which tumor types they're playing a role in and which patients they're playing a role in so that we can block the appropriate off switches. Maybe we need to block multiple off switches so that we allow the immune response to take off and do its job in more patients.”

For now, immunotherapy treatments are only FDA approved for three types of cancer, but the hope is that additional development can help such a tactic be used on a much wider group of patients. Until then, it would seem the dangerous will still be required to combat the deadly.

Read more on immunotherapy treatment through the American Cancer Society.