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Five new cancer research breakthroughs

Latest results from trials of drugs and therapies met with tears of joy

Cancer researchers

A string of research breakthroughs are bringing fresh hope to cancer patients, scientists and charities.

Key steps forward in the developments of hormone, drug and radiotherapy treatments for cancer were announced over the weekend. And researchers revealed earlier this month that the technology behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine has been used to design a jab that could help treat various forms of the disease. 

Here are the five big new breakthroughs.

Abiraterone hormone therapy

Deaths in men with aggressive prostate cancer could potentially be halved by adding a hormone therapy to existing treatments, newly presented findings suggest. 

In a UK trial, 2,000 men were given either standard treatment, consisting of hormone therapy with or without chemotherapy, or standard treatment plus a hormone therapy called abiraterone. 

After six years, the death rate among the group given standard treatment only was 15%, compared with 7% in the group that also received abiraterone.

And the cancer had not spread in 82% of the patients given abiraterone, compared with 69% in the normal-care group, according to trial findings presented yesterday at the European Society for Medical Oncology’s annual conference

A total of about 48,500 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in the UK alone. But experts believe the results “are likely to change the standard of care worldwide”, The Times reported.

Accelerated precision radiotherapy

In separate research, scientists hope that some men could be cured of prostate cancer within a week by using larger doses of precision radiotherapy.

Men who develop prostate cancer are usually treated in 20 sessions over a month, but scientists want to cut the therapy to just two high-dose treatments carried out over the space of seven to 14 days.

A trial is beginning this week at the London Royal Marsden Hospital to determine “whether it is safe to radically speed up treatment”, The Telegraph reported.

Patients could “come in, get cured, get on with their normal lives and forget about their cancer completely”, trial leader Dr Alison Tree, a consultant clinical oncologist at the Royal Marsden and the Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR), told The Sunday Times.

Ovarian cancer drug combination

Thousands of women could benefit from a “revolutionary drug combination” that has been found to shrink tumours in half of patients with an advanced form of ovarian cancer, The Guardian reported.

The two drugs, called VS-6766 and defactinib, combine to block the signals that cancer cells need to grow, and “could offer a new treatment option for women with a type of ovarian cancer that rarely responds to chemotherapy or hormone therapy”, said the newspaper.

In a phase 1 trial led by a team at the ICR and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, 11 of a total 24 patients saw their tumours shrink significantly in response to the treatment. Responses in patients who had a mutation in a gene called KRAS were even more promising, with tumours shrinking in 64%. 

Dr Susana Banerjee, research lead at the Royal Marsden’s gynaecology unit, said: “If these findings are confirmed in larger trials, they’ll represent a significant advance in low-grade serous ovarian cancer treatment.”

Breast cancer cure?

A new medication to treat an aggressive form of breast cancer has raised hopes of a cure after trials “shattered expectations”, according to its manufacturer.

AstraZeneca said three-quarters of a total 500 patients involved in international trials of its new drug, Enhertu, had shown no progression in their disease after 12 months, compared with a third treated with a different medicine.

Enhertu has already been approved by the UK’s medicines regulator and 34 other markets for women whose breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body and who have exhausted other treatments, such as chemotherapy.

David Fredrickson, head of oncology at the Cambridge-based pharmaceuticals company, “said there were tears and cries of surprise when scientists were given the data” on the new treatment for what remains the most common form of cancer, reported The Sunday Times’ senior business correspondent Sabah Meddings.

“It’s a special moment,” he said. “More women are going to have the opportunity to hear that their disease is responding to the medicine.”

Delivered through an intravenous drip in hospitals or clinics, Enhertu can only be used in patients whose cancer produces a protein called Her2 in large quantities on the surface of tumour cells, which accelerates their growth. The mutation is found in about a fifth of patients.

Vaccine hope

Sky News reported earlier this month that the scientists behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid jab are using the same technology to try to develop a vaccine that could help treat cancer.

In tests on mice, the same viral vector vaccine technology used in the Covid vaccine was found to increased the numbers of anti-tumour T cells that attack cancerous growths, helping to increase survival rates.

The scientists designed the cancer vaccine “to target two MAGE-type proteins that are present on the surface of many types of cancer cells”, the broadcaster explained. The vaccine technology has been shown to generate strong T cell responses needed to fight tumours.

A clinical trial of the two-dose vaccine involving people with non-small cell lung cancer is due to take place later this year. Professor Adrian Hill, director of Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, said: “This new vaccine platform has the potential to revolutionise cancer treatment.”

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