Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease. Because this disease is so difficult to treat once it has spread, early detection and prevention have been the cornerstones of modern efforts to combat this disease. Unfortunately, because many cancers can be asymptomatic or mimic the symptoms of other diseases for years and many tests are painful, invasive or uncomfortable, cancer is often not caught when it is the most treatable. These eight innovations in the detection and prevention of cancer may be instrumental in improving cancer outcomes.
Flexible Robotic Endoscopy
Endoscopy uses small tools and cameras to enter the body through natural openings, such as the mouth, and look for abnormalities in the body. Rigid scopes have been used for many years to detect various conditions, however, they have lacked the flexibility for certain screenings and therapies that require a greater deal of precision. New flexible endoscopes offer a level of precision that has many potential benefits in the diagnosis and treatment of lung and colon cancer, particularly when it comes to finding and treating tumors in hard to reach places.
Traditional biopsy methods can be painful and invasive. Liquid biopsies have the potential of allowing doctors to test a patient’s blood for biomarkers shed by tumor cells to detect and monitor certain types of cancer. A liquid biopsy that can detect changes in the EGFR gene in the blood of people with non-small-cell lung cancer was approved in 2016 and liquid biopsies that may be able to detect other types of cancer are currently in development.
Genetic tests are proving useful both in detecting existing cancers and in identifying people who may be at higher risk of developing certain cancers. Researches have identified two genes, called the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which indicate a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Genetic testing can also predict which treatment methods will work best on breast cancer patients. An at-home test that detects DNA changes in human feces is now available as a screening method for colon cancer.
Cancer Prevention Drugs
We have not reached the point where you can just take a pill to prevent cancer, but there are drugs on the market that have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers. A daily dose of aspirin has been found to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in high-risk patients. Drugs that block estrogen receptors and a class of aromatase inhibitors may lower breast cancer risk.
Identifying Viral Causes of Cancer
Scientists discovered in the 1960s that Hepatitis B increased a person’s chances of developing liver cancer. More recently, the Human Papilloma Virus was identified as a leading cause of cervical cancer. The Epstein-Barr virus has been found to contribute to several cancers, including Burkitt and Hodgkin lymphomas and gastric and nasopharyngeal carcinoma. Hepatitis C may also lead to liver cancer. Identifying these viruses as potential causes of cancer has spurred researches to find ways to prevent these infections and allowed doctors to more closely monitor patients who have had these infections for potential cancers.
Cancer vaccines boost the body’s immune system response to cancer. The Sipuleucel-T (Provenge) vaccine has been developed to treat prostate cancer and vaccines are being developed that may aid in the treatment of colon cancer and melanoma. Additionally, vaccines are being used to prevent viral infections that can lead to cancer, such as HPV and Hepatitis.
Digital pathology utilizes computer systems to digitize slides so that pathologists may view and manipulate them on computer screens. This technology makes samples easier and more efficient to read. Algorithms can be used to separate normal from abnormal slides, so that pathologists don’t have to review as many slides, meaning that patients get their results back quicker. The ability to digitally enhance and manipulate images makes it easier for pathologists to detect small changes in cells, which can aid in early diagnosis.
Entrepreneurs in the health field, such as chairman of OncoCellMDx, Harry Stylli , have been innovating new ways to detect substances, called biomarkers, in blood, urine and other body fluids that can signal the presence of cancer. Elevated levels of biomarkers can be caused by things other than cancer, so the technique is not perfect, but it has shown promise in detecting the following biomarkers:
- Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) which can indicate liver cancer
- ALK gene which can be used to diagnose non-small-cell lung cancer
- Prostate-specific-antigen (PSA) detection can indicate prostate cancer
- Thyroglobulin (TG) levels can be checked to diagnose thyroid cancer
- Certain blood proteins are being researched as indicators of pancreatic cancer
Cancer remains a daunting disease to prevent, detect and treat. However, technological advances are allowing doctors to find cancers earlier than ever before and providing them with new ways to treat and prevent the disease.