Home » Six cancer treatment breakthroughs pushing us closer to a cure

Six cancer treatment breakthroughs pushing us closer to a cure

The new cancer jabs are one of many recent exciting steps forward in medical science. Kevin Harrington, a professor of biological cancer therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research and an honorary consultant oncologist at the Royal Marsden (RMH) and St George’s Hospital in London, is optimistic that advances in treatment will improve outcomes. 

“In 20 years, I confidently expect we will cure a substantially larger number of cancer patients,” he said. “And we will cure them with far smarter and kinder treatments than current approaches.”

This does not mean there will ever be a single cure for cancer, says Dr Claire Bromley, a senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK. 

“Cancer is not a single disease”, she adds. “There are over 200 types of cancer, and all of them can be split into different subtypes. It’s unlikely that there will be one silver bullet. However, a combination of many different treatments means we can ultimately beat cancer for everyone.”

Here are the newest breakthroughs to celebrate:

Vaccines that can cure cancer – and prevent it coming back

What are they?

We tend to think of vaccines as treatments we have when we are well. They teach the immune system to recognise a virus so it is destroyed before it can make us sick – or at least make us less sick than we would otherwise be.

However, cancer immunisations are different. While some are being developed to prevent the disease in high-risk patients, most are given when a person has been diagnosed. And they are bespoke treatments, tailored to the patient’s own unique cancer. 

Cancer vaccines may be able to cure even advanced, previously terminal cancers and stop cancer coming back and spreading after it has been treated.

Three out of four cancer deaths occur because cancer spreads to other organs, which often happens after a period in which stray cancer cells go to “sleep”, becoming undetectable before waking up and forming tumours. 

A cancer vaccine not only trains the immune system to recognise and fight off the initial cancer, but also teaches the immune system to recognise any stray cells so they can be picked off if they become active.

“The key to effective anti-cancer treatments is to create an immunological memory response,” said Prof Harrington. “We want the patient to have a standing army of immune cells trained to recognise and kill cancer if it wakes up.” 

There are several different types of cancer vaccines in development which all work in slightly different ways. Many employ the mRNA technology used to create Covid vaccines.

What will they treat?  

More than 20 mRNA-based vaccines entered clinical trials by 2021 targeting hard-to-treat cancers including bowel cancer, pancreatic and the brain cancer glioblastoma.

When will they be ready?

One patient, a 55-year-old lecturer with bowel cancer, has already become the first to take the vaccine. In a national first, father-of-four Elliot Phebve received the developmental jab at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, one of several sites taking part in the colorectal cancer vaccine trial sponsored by BioNTech SE. 

In July last year, the Government signed an agreement with the pharma company to provide up to 10,000 UK patients with precision cancer vaccines by 2030. 

The pill that stops lung cancer in its tracks

What is it?

A daily pill, called lorlatinib, could stop cancer from spreading in lung cancer patients.

Trial results suggest that it works for at least five years in 60 per cent of patients, including just over half of the participants whose cancer had already spread to the brain by the time they joined the trial. 

For comparison, an alternative cancer growth blocker crizotinib (branded as Xalkori and offered to some NHS patients) works in just 8 per cent of patients for five years.

Researchers have been unable to calculate exactly how long lorlatinib typically works for because most study volunteers have not seen their cancer progress since they began taking the medication.

Cancer experts say the results are “a really major step forward in lung cancer care”.

What will it treat? 

It was trialled in patients who have ALK-positive lung cancer, which stands for anaplastic lymphoma kinase. ALK is a gene that is “switched off” in the womb but can turn back on for some people and cause cancer.

Around 49,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK each year but only around 350 people have the ALK-positive type.

When will it be ready?

Lorlatinib is already available on the NHS but only for patients who have not had success with other treatments, but is only given to around 80 patients a year. The pill costs around £167 per day based on its list price.

It was rejected for wider use last year by spending watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), owing to a lack of evidence but could be reconsidered soon in light of the new data.

The breast cancer prevention treatment

What is it? 

Anastrozole is a type of drug called an aromatase inhibitor. It cuts down the amount of the hormone oestrogen that a patient’s body makes by blocking an enzyme called aromatase. Oestrogen can stimulate the growth of some cancers in the body.  

Anastrozole is already licensed in Britain as a treatment for breast cancer, but now its licence has been extended to be used as a preventative measure.

What will it treat?

NHS England said the drug will be available for post-menopausal women at moderate or high risk of breast cancer. They will include women with a family history of the disease, or who have faulty genes such as BRCA1, the so-called Angelina Jolie gene, that put them at greater risk.

Studies have shown that anastrozole can nearly halve the chances of breast cancer if taken daily for five years. 

“If post-menopausal women are concerned about their breast cancer risk because of their family history, it’s best they speak to their GP to decide whether this treatment is appropriate,” said Melanie Surtevant, Associate Director of policy, evidence and influencing at Breast Cancer Now. 

When will it be ready? 

The drug is available now. It’s been recommended since 2017, but uptake has been low. However, the fact that it is now licensed for prevention should lead to an increase.

The tumour annihilator

What is it?  

The AOH1996 drug is named after Anna Olivia Healy, who was born in 1996 and died aged nine after being diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer affecting the nerves.

Researchers in the US have developed a molecule that “appears to annihilate all solid tumours” in preclinical research – while leaving healthy cells unharmed. 

The experimental cancer-killing pill is taken twice a day and blocks a protein called proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA). In a mutated form, PCNA is critical to the growth and repair of tumours.  

“PCNA is uniquely altered in cancer cells, and this allowed us to design a drug that targeted only the form of PCNA in cancer cells, killing tumours while leaving healthy cells untouched,” said Prof Linda Malkas of the department of molecular diagnostics and experimental therapeutics at the City of Hope Hospital, Los Angeles.

What will it treat?

PCNA is found in all cancers, and AOH1996 has shown promise in 70 cell lines, including breast, prostate, brain, ovarian, cervical, skin and lung cancers. It is now being trialled in people for whom standard treatments, such as chemotherapy, have not worked.

When will it be ready?

Prof Harrington said that the drug is “extremely promising”. However, AOH1996 has only just entered phase 1 human trials. 

“Even with accelerated trials and evaluation to test AOH1966 for safety and effectiveness, the treatment will take at least five to 10 years to gain approval in the UK,” he said.