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2021 begins with exciting progress in cancer care!

Look forward to greater hope and ease in healing.

We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.“

2020 was a hard year for humanity, whether you lived in America or in any other part of the world. Our weaknesses were laid bare, especially when it came to the health care systems and their preparedness to combat a world-wide pandemic and also at a more local level, to assist patients already with chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cancer.

Yet, hope shines through in the fact that despite numerous obstacles, scientists and physicians have never made more progress on any disease in a year than they did on COVID-19 in 2020. Under normal circumstances, creating a vaccine can take up to 10 years. Last year, multiple vaccines were created in less than 12 months. Similarly, there were several advances in the field of cancer treatment, breakthroughs that bring new hope for millions of cancer patients all over the globe.

ASCO, the American Society of Clinical Oncology selected “Refinement of Surgical Treatment of Cancer” as the 2020 Advance of the Year.

Considerable advances have been seen in neoadjuvant (treatment given before surgery) therapies. This includes new research in the treatment of melanoma, renal and pancreatic cancers. Studies showed that in melanoma, pre-surgery immunotherapy helps patients with advanced melanoma avoid surgery in several cases. In renal cancer, 2 trials show that precision guided targeted therapy can reduce upfront surgery while in pancreatic cancer, 2 trials showed that patients with previously unresectable cancer that received chemotherapy became eligible for surgery after initial chemotherapy.

There’s more! Here are some other exciting developments in the realm of cancer diagnosis and treatment:

  • In a paper published in Nature Immunology in January 2020, scientists discovered a novel type of killer T cell. The newly discovered T cells were shown, in the lab, to destroy lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer cells – whilst leaving normal cells unharmed.

  • In a paper published in Annals on Oncology in March 2020, researchers show that a blood test could detect more than 50 different types of cancer, with a false positive rate of < 1%. The test was able to predict the tissue in which the cancer originated in 96% of samples and it was accurate in 93% of cases.

  • In May 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called selpercatinib for lung and thyroid cancers that have a specific kind of genetic alteration called RET gene mutations or fusions. A study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine that studied people treated with selpercatinib. It found that among people with lung cancer who had previously received other treatments, 64 percent had their tumors shrink substantially. After a year of taking the drug, nearly two-thirds of those patients were still responding well. For those who had never received any treatment, the response rate was even higher at 85%.

  • In a paper published in July 2020, scientists demonstrated that PanSeer, a blood-based cancer screening test, allows for early detection of cancer. PanSeer searches for cancer-specific methylation signatures, and demonstrates the early detection of multiple cancer types up to four years prior to conventional diagnosis in a large-scale retrospective longitudinal study.

Cancer drugs represented the lion's share of new drug approvals in 2020, with almost 20 novel agents approved.

This includes Sacituzumab, a drug given accelerated FDA approval in April, 2020. It is the first antibody drug conjugate approved for the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer.

Indeed, there is much to look forward to in the coming year including precision immunotherapeutics, newer generations of CAR-T cells and cancer vaccines, each innovation bringing promise for millions of cancer patients everywhere.

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Reason to Hope

There is new research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital that indicates a Western-style diet that is rich in red and processed meat, sugar and refined grains/carbohydrates is tied to higher risk of colorectal cancer through the intestinal microbiota.  Gastroenterology, 2022;DOI:10.1053/j.gastro.2022.06.054 

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