The National Cancer Institute spends over 5 billion dollars each year on research to better understand cancer and to develop therapies that will slow or eliminate the disease. One of the more promising areas of discovery in recent years is in targeted therapy. This method of treatment focuses on a precision assault of the cancer cells rather than all of the cells in the body.
What Targeted Therapy Does
The research that has been conducted for targeted therapy is focused on discovering specific molecular targets. These are the molecules that are involved in cancer growth, progression and spread. Unlike traditional chemotherapy which is designed to eradicate all of a specific type of fast dividing cell, targeted treatments are focused on only destroying specifically selected cells which facilitate the proliferation of the cancer cells. While the goal of traditional chemotherapy is to kill existing cancer cells, a cytotoxic process, targeted therapy is designed to stop the growth of new cells, a cytostatic process.
How Targets Are Determined
Proteins are very important to cancer cell growth and proliferation. Scientist are able to harvest cancer cells and healthy cells to determine which proteins appear in much higher concentration in the cancer cells than the healthy cells or even which proteins are present in the cancer cells but not present in the healthy cells. These proteins are then determined to be the target of the treatment. Scientist work to create a compound that will inhibit the protein from binding with receptors to grow the cancer.
Challenges of Targeted Therapy
One of the drawbacks to targeted therapy is that the cancer cells can become resistant to the treatment. In some cases, the target will mutate to become immune to the treatment and in other cases the cancer will use a different protein to facilitate growth. Another issue that researchers are working to overcome is the existence of certain targets that cannot be inhibited at all. Many variants of treatments have been used but none have successfully bonded with the protein.
Side Effects of Targeted Therapy
One of the driving goals of targeted therapy was to offer cancer patients a treatment that was less toxic to normal cells and that didn’t produce the debilitating side effects that are common with a standard chemotherapy treatment. Although side effects have not been completely eliminated, the targeted therapy side effects appear to be more mild in most patients. The issues can include diarrhea, skin problems, issues with blood clotting and normal healing processes and high blood pressure.
Targeted Therapy Treatments Available
There are many types of cancer that offer FDA approved targeted therapy options for select patients. The list includes stomach cancer, bladder cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, large cell bone cancer, kidney cancer, leukemia, liver cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and some skin cancers. More information about possible treatment options and eligibility can be found at the National Cancer Institute website or by calling 1-800-4-CANCER.
The Investment is Paying Off
The vast investment that society has made in cancer research is finally offering a sizeable reward for cancer patients and their loved ones. Survival rates are increasing and the life altering side effects of treatments are diminishing. My generation might not see the cure for cancer but it is not out of the realm of possibility for my son’s generation to see it, and for his son’s generation to grow up with no frame of reference for this horrendous disease.