Tracking and attacking cancer: new diagnostics and therapies

The rising tide of cancer

Cancer is now the second most common cause of death, with 9.16 million people dying from the disease and 17 million new cases reported worldwide in 2018. Worryingly, the incidence is predicted to rise by as much as 62% by 2030.

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. Owlstone Medical’s breath biopsy acts as a “breathalyser” to detect certain cancers. Its most recent clinical trial, 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 lung and colorectal cancer 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 Angle’s Parsortix™ technology was able to capture masses of cancer cells 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.

Liquid biopsies could also help pinpoint the cancer’s origin in patients where the original tumour can’t be found, which is the 5th most common cause of cancer death in the UK.

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.

The 100,000 Genome Project recently completed its goal of mapping 100,000 complete genomes from 85,000 NHS patients with rare diseases and cancer, both of which are strongly linked to changes in the genome.

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 5 million genomes over the next 5 years. 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 identifying clusters of tumour cells with unusual shaped nuclei, 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 begun testing AI software by Kheiron Medical 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 detect brain tumours faster and more accurately than a team of medical experts, whilst European cancer treatment centre Gustave Roussy 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 Francis Crick Institute in London are beginning clinical trials this year on a new treatment which uses implanted immune cells from healthy donors to tackle tumours. If successful, the study leaders say it could improve ten-year survival rates from 50% to 75%.

An experimental therapy by the US National Cancer Institute saved the life of a woman with terminal breast cancer by injecting her with 90 billion cancer-killing white blood cells: two years after the treatment, there is no sign of the disease.

A form of immunotherapy that turns off immune-suppressing proteins in tumour cells, allowing the body’s immune response to attack them, even won the Nobel Prize for medicine in October last year.

With scientists thinking outside of conventional treatments, the next few decades could see a revolution in the way cancer is treated.

Recruitment needs

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.

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs.

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