Cancer. Just saying the word on its own can be scary, especially if you've ever lost a loved one to the disease or if you've faced it yourself.
And a big reason for that has to do with one of its common treatments — chemotherapy — which causes intense side effects like hair loss, nausea, and weakened immune systems. (And that's when it works!)
But a new breakthrough treatment cured cancerous tumors in 97% of mice during recent trials at Stanford University. Now researchers are soliciting around 35 human patients for tests that are expected to begin before the end of 2018.
Unlike other cancer treatments, this immune-system-based approach is potentially low-impact, avoiding chemotherapy altogether.
"The thing to understand is how much of a game changer this is," said Dr. Michelle Hermiston, director of pediatric immunotherapy at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, the first hospital in the state to implement a different immunotherapy treatment for lymphoma and leukemia patients. "If it's your kid, it makes a huge difference," she said.
Dr. Ronald Levy, a Stanford oncology professor who is leading the study, said that if the Food and Drug Administration approves the treatment after human trials, it could appear on the market within one to two years.
This chemotherapy-free treatment uses the body's own immune system to fight cancer cells.
Levy says the treatment is not a permanent cure, but it uses the body's defense mechanisms to attack certain types of cancer cells.
It works by using an injection that stimulates the body's T cells to attack tumors. Levy also said the current treatment is not a magic bullet for all types of cancers because different cancer cells behave differently. For this study, he and his team are focusing on people with low-grade lymphoma.
"Getting the immune system to fight cancer is one of the most recent developments in cancer," he said. "People need to know that this is in its early days, and we are still looking for safety and looking to make this as good as it can be."
In an era of bad news, scientists have reminded us how to be hopeful.
An estimated 7.6 million people die from cancer each year. More than 70,000 people are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma each year, and while survival rates are relatively high, any progress on that front is great news. And during a time when our world can often feel overwhelmed with bad news, it's a welcome reminder that scientific progress continues to march forward.
This week alone, scientists announced the discovery of an entirely new organ in the human body, a development that could fundamentally alter our understanding of how diseases like cancer quickly spread to other parts of the body.