Remember that 5K run or walk you completed last fall to support cancer research? Good news — your donation may have played a role in the development of brand-new treatment innovations.

According to the American Cancer Society, almost one in every two men (42 percent) and one in every three women (38 percent) will develop some form of cancer over a lifetime. This means the odds are strong that you’ve known someone who has suffered from the disease, and you’ve probably witnessed the toll that repeated radiation and chemotherapy cycles can have on the body.

But now, more and more medical professionals are turning to targeted therapy to treat various types of cancer. While still often used in tandem with traditional chemotherapy, this novel approach applies the concepts of genomics to provide a more selective treatment with fewer harsh side effects.

What Is Targeted Therapy?

Targeted cancer drugs do exactly what they sound like — they “target” specific genes and molecular proteins to keep the abnormal, or mutated, cancer cells from growing or spreading, which ultimately lessens the risk of disease progression.

Targeted cancer therapy, sometimes called molecularly targeted therapy, is different from traditional chemotherapy in a few important ways:

  • While targeted therapies act on specific molecular targets, focusing only on the mutated cells, traditional chemotherapy attacks both abnormal and normal dividing cells.
  • Targeted therapies can be designed to act on specific targets while many of the traditional chemotherapies kill more general cells.
  • Targeted treatments are cytostatic, meaning they inhibit growth of the unhealthy cells, while traditional chemotherapies are cytotoxic, meaning they work by killing cells.

What Does the Research Show?

Many targeted treatments are still in the clinical trial phase, but so far, the research findings have been promising. For example, a study that appeared in the journal Nature Communications last fall found that a genetically engineered diatom called Thalassiosira pseudonana was successfully able to target neuroblastoma and B-lymphoma cells, leading to shrinkage of the tumor site in a sample of mice. Similarly, a paper published in Current Opinion in Immunology last April reported that targeted T-cell receptor (TCR) therapy was capable of completely destroying tumors in experimental cancer models.

The results of human studies, though often preliminary, have also been positive. A 2013 study in Clinical Cancer Research, for example, reported on the benefits of a targeted therapy called sorafenib in a sample of 105 patients with treatment-resistant non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The drug, which was designed in the eight-week BATTLE trial to act on mutations of the EGFR gene, significantly improved disease control rate (DCR), as well as survival benefits in the study subjects.

What Are the Types of Targeted Therapy?

There are four main classes of targeted anti-cancer drugs:

  • Anti-Angiogenesis Agents: Angiogenesis refers to the development of new blood vessels. These drugs work can be useful because, they prevent new blood vessels from forming, which restricts the blood supply to the tumor.
  • Apoptosis Inducers: Apoptosis, also known as programmed cell death, is the process by which the body gets rid of abnormal or dead cells — but cancer cells don’t go through apoptosis on their own. These drugs force cell death by targeting specific proteins in the body.
  • Differentiation Drugs: These agents promote cellular differentiation — they force immature cancer cells to function more like normal cells, which can slow progression of the cancer.
  • Signal Transduction Inhibitors: These drugs prevent the disease from spreading by intercepting the abnormal cells’ communication signals that they normally use to grow.

Are Targeted Therapies FDA-Approved?

While many targeted therapies are still under research and review, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already granted approval for several drugs. For example, in 2015, the FDA announced that it had approved a drug called gefitinib for the first-line treatment of NSCLC. This drug, like sorafenib, acts upon mutations of the EGFR gene.

Other targeted treatments approved by the FDA include, among others, ado-trastuzumab emtansine for HER2+ breast cancer, aldesleukin for melanoma and renal cell carcinoma, and belinostat for peripheral T-cell lymphoma — so patients with multiple types of cancer have the opportunity to benefit without having to join a clinical trial.

Little escapes the eagle eyes of government regulation: In addition to pharmaceuticals, the FDA, and other regulatory agencies also closely monitor laboratory processes and procedures that are essential to assuring quality control in both animal and human studies, including those in oncology.

What Is the Future of Cancer Treatment?

From waterproof smartphones to self-driving cars, technology is always advancing — and the medical field is no exception.

Researchers continue to publish the results of ongoing clinical trials for targeted anti-cancer therapies and achieve FDA approval. Better results mean more patients will have access to treatments that provide better efficacy, more specificity, and less toxicity than traditional chemotherapy.

It’s not just the therapies themselves that are improving. For example, researchers from the University of California (U.C.) Santa Cruz Genomics Institute have developed an innovative system for storing and analyzing genomic data so that oncologists can select the most appropriate therapies for pediatric cancer patients. The U.C. Santa Cruz team uses a high-tech application called MedBook, which helps scientists collaboratively evaluate genomic targets and decide on the most effective plan of attack.

The team of researchers even fully mapped a human genome in 2000, making it easier than ever to decode DNA in cancer patients.

Of course, much more research must be done before we can claim to have found a “cure.” For example, many cancer patients remain resistant to even targeted treatment.

The bottom line? Make sure you keep up with your training runs so you can sign up for the next cancer-supporting 5K. The more support they receive will allow for better technology to treat patients.

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