For years we've been waiting for that one single cure that will wipe out all cancer. Chances are it will not happen that way. the more researchers learn about the disease, the more complex it becomes. But headway is being made in the treatment of skin, lung and ovarian cancers. Some approaches work by revving up the immune system, while others are more personalized, targeting specific genes.
Melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, is on the rise. If caught early it's treatable. But, for those people where the disease has advanced, chances of recovery are grim. But researches say they have scored a victory: an experimental drug seems to stimulate the immune system so a patient's own body does a better job fighting off the cancer.
"We've not had effective therapies with advanced melanoma, and what this recent study showed i Ipilumumab triggered an immune response that can have patents live longer," said Dr. Lynn Schuchter , Oncologist, Univ. of Pennsylvania.
Encouraging research on the drug was unveiled at the American Society of Clinical Oncologists. Experts say immunotherapy is an approach to fighting cancer that is catching on. Ipilimumab is not a cure, but it did improve survival.
"About four months-- that may not sound like a major improvement, but in melanoma, where we have never ever before had therapies that prolonged survival, this is really clinically significant advance," said Dr. Schuchter.
Drug makers are also showing progress with what are known as targeted therapies for patients with cancers related to specific genes. An experimental drug for lung cancer called crizotinib is showing promise. It targets a gene that promotes tumor growth and is found in 4 percent of lung cancer patients, especially among younger non-smokers.
"It's an oral medication, and it makes the tumor shrink in a high proportion of patients," said Dr. Richard Schilsky, Oncologist/Hematologist, Univ. of Chicago Med. Ctr.
Another study showed that the targeted therapy Avastin, combined with chemotherapy, could help women with previously untreated advanced ovarian cancer. The study showed a 39 percent improvement in the likelihood of living longer without the disease worsening versus chemotherapy alone.
"A lot of these newer therapies are allowing patients to live a long time without the cancer…living pretty much normal lives, and so that's the good news," said Dr. Schilsky.
While genetic advances in targeting specific mutations hold great promise for cancer treatment, so far they are not saving large numbers of lives.
Both the lung and melanoma drugs are not yet available to all patients, but in specific cases they can be used for what's knows as compassionate care. It's a way of getting access to a drug before FDA approval.