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oncology

Women discussing cancer treatment options

Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

In the last few days, you may have heard that there’s been a significant development in the management of breast cancer. So here’s the NIH Director’s blog description of what’s happened. Each year, as many as 135,000 American women who’ve undergone surgery for the most common form of early-stage breast cancer face a difficult decision: whether or not to undergo chemotherapy. Genetic testing of tumor tissue has helped to inform some of these decisions, with women whose tumors score high on the breast cancer recurrence scale likely to benefit from chemo, and those with low-scoring tumors able to skip the cost and potentially serious side effects. But there’s been a catch: most tumors score somewhere in the middle, leaving women and their doctors uncertain about what to do.

Now, thanks to the long-awaited results of a large, NIH-funded clinical trial, we finally have an answer. About 70 percent of women with hormone receptor (HR)-positive, HER2-negative, axillary lymph node-negative breast cancer—including those with mid-range scores on the cancer recurrence scale—do not benefit from chemotherapy [1]. These findings promise to spare a great many women with breast cancer from unnecessary exposure to costly and potentially toxic chemotherapy.

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Zachary Morris

Zachary Morris
Credit: Alan Leon

Zachary Morris has certainly done some memorable things. As a Rhodes Scholar, he once attended an evening reception at Buckingham Palace, played a game of pick-up football with former President Bill Clinton, and traveled to South Africa to take a Robben Island Prison tour, led by the late Nelson Mandela. But something the young radiation oncologist did during his medical residency could prove even more momentous. He received a special opportunity from the American Board of Radiology to join others in studying how to pair radiation therapy with the emerging cancer treatment strategy of immunotherapy.

Morris’s studies in animals showed that the two treatments have a unique synergy, generating a sustained tumor-specific immune response that’s more potent than either therapy alone. But getting this combination therapy just right to optimize its cancer-fighting abilities remains complicated. Morris, now a researcher and clinician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, has received a 2017 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to look deeper into this promising approach. He and his collaborators will use what they learn to better inform their future early stage clinical trials of radio-immunotherapy starting with melanoma, head and neck cancers, and neuroblastoma.

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Pediatric Cancer

Credit: National Cancer Institute, NIH

Each year, more than 15,000 American children and teenagers will be diagnosed with cancer. While great progress has been made in treating many types of childhood cancer, it remains the leading cause of disease-related death among kids who make it past infancy in the United States [1]. One reason for that sobering reality is our relatively limited knowledge about the precise biological mechanisms responsible for childhood cancers—information vital for designing targeted therapies to fight the disease in all its varied forms.

Now, two complementary studies have brought into clearer focus the genomic landscapes of many types of childhood cancer [2, 3]. The studies, which analyzed DNA data representing tumor and normal tissue from more than 2,600 young people with cancer, uncovered thousands of genomic alterations in about 200 different genes that appear to drive childhood cancers. These so-called “driver genes” included many that were different than those found in similar studies of adult cancers, as well as a considerable number of mutations that appear amenable to targeting with precision therapies already available or under development.

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Cancer Immunotherapy

Caption: Adapted from scanning electron micrograph of cytotoxic T cells (red) attacking a cancer cell (white).
Credits: Rita Elena Serda, Baylor College of Medicine; Jill George, NIH

There’s been tremendous excitement in the cancer community recently about the life-saving potential of immunotherapy. In this treatment strategy, a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. But despite many dramatic stories of response, immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone. A major challenge has been figuring out how to identify with greater precision which patients are most likely to benefit from this new approach, and how to use that information to develop strategies to expand immunotherapy’s potential.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about early progress on this front, highlighting a small study in which NIH-funded researchers were able to predict which people with colorectal and other types of cancer would benefit from an immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda®). The key seemed to be that tumors with defects affecting the “mismatch repair” pathway were more likely to benefit. Mismatch repair is involved in fixing small glitches that occur when DNA is copied during cell division. If a tumor is deficient in mismatch repair, it contains many more DNA mutations than other tumors—and, as it turns out, immunotherapy appears to be most effective against tumors with many mutations.

Now, I’m pleased to report more promising news from that clinical trial of pembrolizumab, which was expanded to include 86 adults with 12 different types of mismatch repair-deficient cancers that had been previously treated with at least one type of standard therapy [1]. After a year of biweekly infusions, more than half of the patients had their tumors shrink by at least 30 percent—and, even better, 18 had their tumors completely disappear!

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Brain scan analysis

Caption: Oncologists review a close-up image of a brain tumor (green dot).
Credit: National Cancer Institute

Scientists have spent much time and energy mapping the many DNA misspellings that can transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. But recently it has become increasingly clear that changes to the DNA sequence itself are not the only culprits. Cancer can also be driven by epigenetic changes to DNA—modifications to chemical marks on the genome don’t alter the sequence of the DNA molecule, but act to influence gene activity. A prime example of this can been seen in glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer that strikes about 12,000 Americans each year.

In fact, an NIH-funded research team recently published in Nature Communications the most complete portrait to date of the epigenetic patterns characteristic of the glioblastoma genome [1]. Among their findings were patterns associated with how long patients survived after the cancer was detected. While far more research is needed, the findings highlight the potential of epigenetic information to help doctors devise more precise ways of diagnosing, treating, and perhaps even preventing glioblastoma and many other forms of cancer.

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