The rising tide of cancer
On World Cancer Day, we look at what is being done to improve detection and treatment of the disease.
Breathing new life into cancer diagnosis
New technology is driving innovative diagnostic methods. ’s breath biopsy acts as a “breathalyser” to detect certain cancers. Its launched last month in partnership with the NHS and Cancer Research UK, will focus on early detection of six different cancer types, including pancreatic and prostate cancers.
Other clinical trials are ongoing involving 5,400 patients in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline and Warwick University. If successful, Owlstone’s mission to “save 100,000 lives and $1.5bn in healthcare costs” could become a reality.
Research into cancer detection using liquid biopsies — blood samples — instead of the more invasive tissue sample collection method has produced some promising results.
Scientists at the University of Basel discovered was able to called circulating tumour cell clusters (CTCs), which can cause the cancer to spread to other parts of the body. This means that patients identified as having CTCs could potentially be treated with drugs that break up the cell clusters and suppress the spread of the tumours.
Mapping, monitoring and machine learning
While novel diagnostic methods could save thousands of lives every year, predicting the likelihood of developing cancer in the first place and monitoring patients with higher risk factors could go one better.
By comparing sequenced DNA from patients’ healthy and tumour cells, researchers can spot the cancer-causing changes, which could then improve diagnosis and selecting the right treatment for the patient.
The UK is leading the charge in cancer detection using genomics. In October 2018, the Government’s Health Secretary announced the launch of the NHS Genomic Medicine Service which will sequence . The programme, a 1st of its kind within a healthcare system, will be a step change in the way cancer is diagnosed and treated.
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have meant that they can now be used to predict and detect cancer earlier than more traditional methods. Deadly forms of ovarian cancer have been detected using AI by , which normal tests can overlook. This could then be used alongside genetic testing to identify women who could benefit from alternative treatments that target these unusual tumour cells.
The UK government is heavily backing AI for cancer diagnosis and monitoring. Last year, it pledged millions of pounds aiming to diagnose 50,000 people at the early stages of bowel, prostate, ovarian and lung cancer every year, which could potentially prevent 22,000 deaths annually. The NHS has also announced it has by which uses algorithms to rapidly and accurately detect breast cancer from scans.
Elsewhere in the world, a Beijing based AI system, BioMind, has been able to than a team of medical experts, whilst European cancer treatment centre is using AI to rapidly diagnose cancer and reduce treatment times for children.
The immune system fights back
Better diagnostics, prediction and early detection are all very well, but what is being done to improve treatment once cancer has been diagnosed?
One exciting approach is immunotherapy, where the body’s own immune system is used to fight cancer cells. Researchers at the in London are beginning clinical trials this year on a new treatment which uses . If successful, the study leaders say it could improve ten-year survival rates from 50% to 75%.
With scientists thinking outside of conventional treatments, the next few decades could see a revolution in the way cancer is treated.
For diagnostics, we are seeing the biggest demand for protein and biomarker scientists, device developers and engineers. Unsurprisingly with the explosion of AI in the area, the need for informaticians (chem-, bio- and health), machine learning and software developers, as well as data analysts has more than doubled in the last year.
In cancer therapeutics, cellular and molecular biologists, medical and regulatory affairs specialists are in constant demand. However, we are also seeing an increasing need for bioinformaticians and clinical trial specialists as personalised therapies are putting greater focus on designing clinical studies and analysis of clinical data.
Together these roles can help stem the tide of cancer by enabling early and more accurate cancer diagnosis and developing much needed new therapies.