Cutting-Edge Advances In Cancer treatment That Could Change Lives

What if radiation treatments could be given in a handful of seconds rather than weeks of treatments? If surgeons could actually see tumor cells rather than simply hoping they got rid of them all? If scientists could come up with new ways to detect, treat and understand tumors? These were among some of the ideas presented this week in Orlando at the American Association for Cancer Research annual conference, where more than 6,500 scientists shared their work and their hopes for improving the lives of cancer patients. Work against cancer has continued over the last three years, despite the pandemic, said Dr. Robert Vonderheide, the conference’s program committee chair. The thousands of presentations and 20,000-person turnout should convince people of that. Obviously, lots of the research is worth public attention. But with Vonderheide’s guidance, USA TODAY picked three ideas that seemed among the most surprising and hopeful, the kinds of approaches that have the potential to transform cancer treatment and patients’ lives.

The first is “flashradiation, which concentrates weeks of treatments into a few days; the second, an imaging technology that lights up cancer cells to help surgeons track them down.

Two of the most fundamental tools, cancer surgery and cancer radiation, are undergoing before our eyes fundamental changes in their technology,” said Vonderheide, who directs the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “They are each promising better success.” A third line of research is providing insights into the role of the nervous system in cancer, which could eventually be used to help patients sleep better, heal faster and live longer. Researchers typically focus on a tumor, but there are “systemic signals that might tell us how best to treat a patient or that a patient actually has a lurking cancer,” Vonderheide said. Like the immune system, which has increasingly been manipulated to help fight cancer over the last decade, the nervous system monitors the body and remembers what it encounters.

The immune system is probably the first system to know that cancer exists. And probably the nervous system is the next one,” he said. “Maybe there’s new inroads in early detection if we focus on neurological health and immune health.” None of these new approaches is readily available yet, but Vonderheide thinks they’re among the advances worth watching.

At least half of patients with solid tumors endure radiation at some point during their treatment. Radiation typically takes about 15 minutes, though sessions can last an hour or more and are scheduled every weekday for three to nine weeks – requiring a total of 15 to 40 visits. Patients may suffer skin burns, dry mouth, difficulties eating and swallowing, and exhaustion. They must upend their lives and often a loved one’s to get to a clinic so many times.

Radiation therapy is traditionally delivered in small doses over weeks so it can efficiently kills tumor cells while being less toxic to surrounding healthy tissue, said Constantinos Koumenis, a professor of radiation biology at the University of Pennsylvania‘s Perelman School of Medicine. But as many radiation patients can attest, treatments still do plenty of damage to normal tissue. Instead, Koumenis and dozens of other research teams have been testing “flash radiation,” which uses ultra high dose rate beams of energy to zap tumor cells. Patients might get the same amount of radiation in just two to four sessions of less than 1 second each. “The vulnerability of the tumor cells is essentially the same,” Koumenis said. “What’s different is the normal tissue is more resistant to the flash radiation.”