Cancer treatment research: Innovative insights into the path towards a cure

Importance of and study designs 

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death globally1. In the past couple of decades cancer research has received a lot of attention. Researchers have dedicated time and effort towards studies on cancer causes, disease progression and pathophysiology, detection methods, treatments and palliative care. While some studies on cancer have led nowhere, some have been impactful and yielded innovative breakthroughs. For instance, research has led to a deeper understanding of cancer progression and this has been helpful in designing more precise therapies. 

Continuous research efforts are still required for better cancer diagnosis, prevention and diagnosis and physicians definitely have a significant role to play in cancer research study.  According to a Sermo poll, 63% of physicians had participated in a  cancer research study and 69% of physicians indicated interest in participating or conducting a cancer research study. Perhaps, you are also interested in contributing to cancer research but not sure what role best suits you as a physician. 

This article focuses on how physicians can participate in cancer treatment research, how to keep up with advancements in cancer research and the future of cancer research.

The importance of cancer treatment research

Cancer is a complex disease and has a huge burden in the United states and globally. Its incidence has been projected to increase in the future. By 2040, the number of new cancer cases per year is estimated to increase to 29.5 million and the number of cancer-related deaths to 16.4 million across the globe2.

To combat the devastating effect of a growing cancer incidence, the study of cancer and its treatment is important. In the last decade we have seen ground-breaking advances that have revolutionized cancer outcomes. As researchers continuously study about cancer, better and more innovative treatments can be designed. 

Cancer research is also important for improvements in diagnosis and detection methods. Conventional cancer diagnosis involves the analysis of tissue and cytology specimens obtained through a tumor biopsy procedure to examine a tumor’s physical appearance and to determine whether a tumor is malignant3. Advancements in molecular medicine have allowed more in depth analysis of tumor markers in cancer studies. 

Sophisticated technologies in ultrastructure, light microscopy, enzyme histochemistry, immunohistochemistry and molecular diagnostics have revolutionized how cancer is detected and characterized4. In the study of cancer, researchers have used these technologies and have obtained deeper understanding of cancer and its progression 

Cancer research study can also help to identify the cause and risk factors of certain cancers. Cause of cancer remains a puzzle to a large extent but thanks to research certain causes and risk factors have been established. Over the years, the understanding of cancer and its causes have improved. Several studies have revealed the cancer-causing abilities of certain chemicals and viruses. With continuous studies about cancer and risk factors, better steps towards prevention can be taken.

Another reason why cancer research is important is to improve the management of cancer. Cancer can be a debilitating disease with severe symptoms, treatment side effects and secondary effects such as poor appetite and mental health disruptions. Better supportive and palliative care methods are needed to help cancer patients navigate the course of the disease better. The disease can also present a huge burden on a patient’s loved ones and caretaker. There is still a need to find ways that cancer and its treatment can have less consequences for cancer patients and their loved ones.

What role do physicians play in cancer research studies?

The most obvious role of physicians in cancer care is in diagnosis, treatment and care of patients. However, we are currently in very interesting times in cancer research that needs multidisciplinary collaborations  to arrive at more innovative cancer breakthroughs. Besides physicians’ active contribution to the diagnosis and comprehensive management of cancer patients, physicians can participate at different capacities to support cancer research. Here are a few roles Physicians can play in cancer research studies. 

Be active in laboratory/bench research

For physicians who enjoy discovery, they can channel their training and expertise towards significant laboratory work for cancer treatment research. Such physicians are not only essential to discovery and pre-clinical studies but also play a significant role in translational research. 

Many physician scientists have contributed to interesting cancer discoveries and developments such as retroviral oncogenes and gene-targeted therapies5.

Doctors are needed in translational research

Translational medicine involves interpreting and integrating new knowledge obtained from research into clinical practice and in the same way using observations from clinical practice to improve pre-clinical research6. Its bidirectional approach is necessary for development of disease-targeted therapies and for improving development of new treatments. 

Physicians lie at the heart of clinical research and clinical practice, hence are in the best position to drive translational research to promote innovation of new therapies.

Shaping and informing clinical trials

A very essential part of drug development and cancer treatment research is a clinical trial. Clinical trials are most often conducted in phases- Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3. Doctors, particularly those with a specialty in oncology, can help in developing clinical trial protocols. Physicians, because of their experience and training, can help define the end-point for clinical studies and other cancer study designs. They can also help define the right patient population to be included in a clinical trial based on age, severity of disease and other prognostic factors. 

Physicians are needed for defining and modifying treatment recommendations

With the introduction of novel breakthrough treatments for the treatment of cancer into clinical practice, there is a need to update the standards of care to more effective options. Treatment of cancer often requires combining therapies while considering other co-existing diseases and minimizing side effects. Arriving at these recommendations requires collective research effort and collaborations of doctors. Doctors have specialized training and experience with patient-level care that enables them to make sound decisions about the most effective and safe treatment for different patient groups.

Pass down the knowledge of Clinical research to young doctors and medical students

Cancer research is continuously evolving and its rapid advancement is dependent on the understanding of previous discoveries and developments. Knowledge management is a very important aspect of research and training the next generation of doctors and researchers is essential. Physicians can contribute to the advancement of cancer research by educating young doctors and medical students on the latest developments in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Participate in medical research surveys

For physicians who would like to contribute to cancer research but in a more passive manner, medical research surveys are an excellent option. Medical research surveys for physicians are commonly paid online surveys. By participating in research surveys, physicians with a specialty in oncology can give real-world insights from their experience with patients. These insights are valuable to pharmaceutical companies and contribute to cancer treatment research and development. 

The latest technologies in cancer treatment research 

The way cancer is treated has changed over the years. A couple of decades back, death rates from cancer were high and treatment mostly required surgery. Today, we have seen breakthrough treatments that have revolutionized cancer care and outcomes- thanks to technology advancement. Here are some of the recent technology advancements in cancer treatment research.

CRISPR

According to a Sermo poll, 46% of Sermo physicians see CRISPR as the most important cancer research treatment technology. With CRISPR, gene editing has never been better. This sophisticated technology allows scientists to access DNA and alter pieces of DNA by deleting and/or inserting parts of the DNA in a cell. CRISPR technology is used today in cancer research and has the potential to transform cancer research and treatments. CRISPR has been used in studies on cancer for various purposes including modifying immune cells for better attack on cancer cells, detecting specific targets and also developing genetically-modified immunotherapy for cancer7.

TeleHealth

Telehealth is a growing concept that allows patients access cancer treatment and care remotely. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become even more popular and is considered safer and more convenient for patients and doctors. Telehealth platforms have also been used for health monitoring, video consultations and in-home treatments. 

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence and machine learning is no new concept in our world today. It is used by many industries to improve daily activities such as online shopping, web search, cybersecurity and social media interaction. In recent times, it has been used in cancer research studies to improve diagnosis, predictions and ultimately cancer care. By feeding AI machines with imaging data and population-based records, cancer researchers can analyze diagnostic results faster and more effectively and also derive more precise predictions of cancer incidence.

Cryo-electron microscopy

Continuous developments in microscope design have given birth to Cryo-EM. Cryo-EM generates high resolution images of tissue sections, cells and protein molecules. Never before could scientists visualize these molecules at such high resolutions. This allows them to analyze biological structures better and obtain a better understanding of how cancer progresses in the body and how cancer cells respond to treatments. Cryo-EM is definitely a valuable tool in cancer research studies.

Robotic surgery

Years ago, the possibility of this happening was far-fetched but thanks to technological advancements robotic surgeries are here to stay. The major advantage of robotic surgery for cancer is that they involve less pain and less blood. They allow for shorter hospital stays and quicker recovery. Furthermore, with the assistance of a robot, doctors can carry out surgical procedures with more precision, flexibility and control. 

Cancer treatment research: Future therapies and approaches 

Cancer care community worldwide has celebrated a lot of revolutionary treatments for cancer in the last couple of decades. Innovative treatment therapies for cancer such as CAR-T-cell therapy, precision medicines and radiation therapy have been instrumental to improving cancer outcomes significantly. But there is still a need for more revolutionary treatments especially for cancers that are difficult to treat. Patients and caretakers, whose voices should be considered in cancer research, will also report how much they would prefer cancer drugs with less side effects. Hence, cancer research in the future should focus on safe and effective drugs.

In the next couple of years, cancer treatment research will prioritize precision medicine. We have seen how targeted therapies and immunotherapies have transformed cancer treatment and there is a buzzing excitement of the potential of more individualized therapies. With precision medicine, cancer treatments can be tailored to match each person’s genetic composition and history. These therapies can be more effective with less side effects than conventional treatment options8

Future studies on cancer will also delve deeper into cell-based therapy, an immunotherapy strategy that positions the body’s immune cells to attack cancer. This treatment method, also known as chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR therapy, has demonstrated efficacy in treatment of blood cancers and so far six CAR T-cell therapies have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration9. This new paradigm of treatments can create more therapeutic options for treatment of other types of cancer including solid tumors.

Other new approaches that will hold the attention of researchers is drug repurposing. Common generics which are used to treat other diseases are being researched to study their effectiveness in preventing cancer.  A good example is Aspirin, an anti-inflammatory drug, which has been evaluated in a number of studies for cancer prevention10. In the study of cancer, researchers have assessed other drugs like antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular, antidepressants, and antipsychotic drugs for their anti-tumoural effect11

Doctors who have a keen interest in cancer should keep abreast with these innovative treatment options and plug in with the future research approach so they can give their patients the evidence-based cost effective treatments.

How to keep up with cancer treatment research?

Cancer treatment research evolves very quickly and because of this, the knowledge a doctor gained during training may be redundant for today’s practice. With the influx of innovative therapies and the advancement of sophisticated technologies used in cancer study, there is a lot more to choose from than what was in the books during medical training. Mind you, the research doesn’t stop and so there are also hundreds of ongoing clinical trials testing a potential breakthrough therapy. The deluge of novel treatments and tools presents both as an opportunity and a challenge to the medical oncologist community. Doctors have to continuously stay up to date with the changes and evolution of cancer treatments so they can give patients the best treatment possible.

However, what is not commonly tabled is how doctors can continuously stay in the loop of the changes. Quite frankly, it may be difficult for physicians to stay up to date with all the changes in diagnostic methods and treatments as well as with updates in causes, risk factors and prevention. The expectation for doctors to incorporate the rapid evolution of knowledge seems insurmountable. 73% of Sermo physicians surveyed report looking up cancer treatment research once a week and 52% of Sermo physicians refer to Medical journals/publications to find resources on cancer treatment research. Nonetheless, relying solely on reading published articles on studies about cancer may not be effective as this requires time and perhaps some skill in refining search on popular search engines.

Smarter methods are needed for doctors to stay updated and to disseminate information. Here are some recommendations:

Leverage the power of community

Physician community groups with common interests can be the shortcut to learning what’s most important in very limited time. In such groups, physicians discuss new therapies, new cancer research studies and share lessons. Sermo is one of such communities. Engaging with more than 1 million physicians across 150 countries, Sermo offers a unique physician-first online community that allows clinicians to communicate about issues that are important to them and their patients.

If you would like to learn more about cancer treatment research and how physicians can contribute to cancer research, sign up on Sermo today for more.

Leverage on strong partnerships with bigger bodies

No man is an island they say and in cancer research this statement is even more meaningful. Bigger cancer centers and cancer-dedicated research bodies are excellent educational pools. Such centers and bodies have more expertise than small centers and they also disseminate research findings on their platforms frequently. Some examples are National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the Association of Community Cancer Centers

Another benefit of doctors partnering with such organizations is that they can easily learn about new and upcoming clinical trials. This way they can easily recognize new treatment options that may benefit their patients and enroll them in clinical studies. 

Be more proactive about knowledge management. Hire someone to do this!

Doctors can learn a thing or two from the legal profession and hire someone to do the research on new therapies and report succinctly to them as needed. Lawyers hire paralegals who carry out research for upcoming cases and considering the volume of information on cancer research available, it makes logical sense to adopt this in medical oncology. 

This person should have some medical training and excellent research and communication skills. By employing someone to take up this responsibility, doctors can focus more on treatment of cancer patients. With this support, they can make better decisions based on recent findings of clinical research in a timely and effective manner.

Use artificial intelligence the way others do

Earlier, artificial intelligence was discussed as an advanced technology that can revolutionize cancer research. Artificial intelligence can also be used in developing smarter medical information systems. Applying machine learning to AI systems to clinical knowledge improves information management and helps doctors synthesize and organize medical information faster and better.

An example of such an AI system that helps oncologists stay up to date with advancements in cancer research is the MD Anderson Oncology Expert Advisor powered by IBM Watson. The Oncology Expert Advisor pools clinical data from a diverse patient population, shares up to date knowledge on treatments and matches patients with clinical trials. The most attractive feature of this virtual advisor to oncologists is how it organizes and lays out literature including treatment guidelines and research findings relevant to each patient’s case. By doing this, the advisor supplies physicians with the best treatment options and supports adoption of new treatments in an evidence‐based manner for improved patient outcomes.

Conferences

Attending conferences is also a way to keep up with cancer research. Conferences like ASCO and ESMO gather physicians, researchers, industry representatives and patient advocates to share advances in cancer treatment research amongst other cancer-related topics. It also provides an excellent avenue to network with other physicians and researchers and discuss and share ideas and research findings. 

Cancer treatment research is evolving and doing so rather quickly. The last couple of decades has witnessed the sprout of revolutionary advancements in cancer diagnosis and treatment. But there is still a lot to do–especially as cancer cases are expected to increase. So then, all hands– including that of physicians–must be on deck.

Physicians are faced with the challenge of managing cancer patients, contributing to cancer research and staying up to date with advancements in cancer research. It can be really challenging but with these tips, one can find a way around it. Take advantage of this and a community of physicians that shares experiences and actionable insights by joining Sermo. To get started, create your free Sermo account now.

Footnotes

  1. NCI
  2. NCI
  3. Bhutani et al
  4. Bhardwaj et al, 2011
  5. ASCO post
  6. Britannica
  7. NCI
  8. FDA
  9. NCI
  10. Ishida et al, 2016
  11. Rodrigues et al, 2022