Hector Osorio 22 Jan 2019

World Cancer day on February 4th is an initiative that aims to create awareness about the effects of this disease over our civilization and promote action at different levels of society.

The way the scientific and medical community takes action is through the development of new technologies to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. 2018 was a busy year; several new drugs and treatments became available for the general public. 2019 hasn’t even really started yet and it already shows a lot of promise. In this article we’ll discuss 4 of the most recent and interesting topics in oncology.

New 3D platforms for cancer studies

Studying cancer in a laboratory usually requires doing it in vitro (in a tube). Although this method has allowed many discoveries, is not the best way to study how a tumor behaves when exposed to a certain treatment.

The MIT created a 3D-printed scaffold that can sustain a micro-tumor under conditions similar to those found inside a living body. This invention is very small, clear and easy to print. So far, results show that is a superior substitute for the traditional methods. The next step will be to conduct full experiments with different types of drugs and other treatments and see if this little gadget is capable to replicate how a normal tumor would behave, if it does, then that could be the beginning of a new way of testing novel drugs .

AI/Machine learning for cancer diagnosis

This year we might be closing on the apex of a recent trend in biomedicine. For a few years now, researchers have worked on a particular type of computer program capable of analyzing a picture and providing a result from it. One of the most important characteristics of these tools is that the more images they study, the more accurate their results will be.

This technology has several names like Artificial Intelligence, Neural Networks, Machine Learning or Deep Learning. A 2018 study from the New York University School of Medicine proved that with enough training, this software was not only capable of being as accurate as professional pathologists at correctly diagnosing breast cancer, but that it can also predict mutations, which can be extremely helpful for patient survival .

Liquid biopsy

A new paradigm of medicine is coming and it is called precision medicine, which focus on selecting therapies based on genetic information from the patient. One of the most powerful tools that may help solidify this new way of doing things is the technique called “liquid biopsy”.

As tumors grow, they shed cells which can be found in circulation. These cells are very useful because they offer information about the current state of the tumor; however, these circulating tumor cells (CTC) are also very difficult to capture, mainly because they are so few compared to the millions of red and white cells present in blood, so, specialized equipment is necessary to provide a valid result.

This is only possible thanks to the development not of equipment capable of automated DNA extraction and software capable of processing the large amount of data that comes with this type of procedure (next generation sequencing).

Studying CTC in well-developed tumors is already a reality, but the goal for the future is using liquid biopsy to detect and treat cancer at very early stages.

Organoids for cancer research   

Organoids come as an alternative to laboratory animals. They are 3D printed scaffolds used to grow several tissues at the same time. The objective is to make them as similar to real organs as possible. Researchers are very excited about this new type of lab equipment. If organoids actually behave as their real counterparts, then that could mean a real revolution in biomedicine. 

Medical research often deals with the problem that in vitro or animal studies have their limitations. At a genetic and biochemical level, only humans behave like humans and if an anti-cancer treatment work for mice it may not work for us.

By using organoids, human tumors could be grown surrounded by human tissues in a way that replicates real conditions. This will lead to faster drug development and more insight into how tumors grow.

New equipment for high-dose radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is one of the most common forms of cancer treatment. Its side effects are well-known and over the last few years the medical community have tried to lean on less aggressive methods (like immunotherapy).

Recently, a special form of radiotherapy known as “high-dose radiotherapy” (HDR) has been getting more attention. This new technique involves using more radiation with greater precision to destroy tumor tissue while leaving healthy tissue intact.

With the purpose of making HDR more efficient and safe, a 10 million dollar project focused on developing a new linear accelerator that could allow greater precision while treating a patient. This invention was made public earlier this year.

With thousands of patients needing radiotherapy each year, this may prove to be one of the most impactful developments of 2019.

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About the Author:
Hector Osorio is a cell biologist, research assistant and science/health content writer. He loves complex topics related to life sciences like cancer, viral infections and aging. He graduated from Central University of Venezuela Faculty of Sciences and worked as a research assistant for the Center of Experimental Medicine of the Venezuelan Center for Scientific Research (IVIC) for 5 years.


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