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Cancer Research Making a Difference

May 17, 2018

Dr. Sharon Wilks, Texas Oncology–San Antonio Northeast offers perspectives on how breakthrough cancer research is improving cancer treatment and enhancing the lives of cancer patients.

How is cancer research making cancer treatment better?  

Research that helps us better understand the internal workings of cells – how they grow and mutate – is key. We are gaining greater understanding of what drives tumor growth and what prevents cancer cell growth and death. We now have better therapies that are specific for these changes, and that lead to more effectiveness and durable effects in cancer care.

For example, we have discovered that breast cancer may have similar pathways as a gastric cancer, and as a result treatments can be effective in different tumor types because the pathways and targets are the same. This has broadened our options in care. Often, these treatments are much more tolerable, in addition to their effectiveness.

What breakthroughs and trends are we seeing that are changing cancer treatment for the better?

Extraordinary research is underway to deconstruct the pathway for tumorigenesis, the process in which normal cells become cancer cells. We are beginning to see successes in patients in our clinic who have had treatment resistant cancers.

Through our national clinical trials program with US Oncology, we have a process that allows us to expand almost any trial that’s underway, to patients here in San Antonio when the disease profile is the right match for the study.

Are there research-based innovations in all areas of cancer treatment, e.g., screenings or across the continuum of care?  

One exciting trial that we are a part of is a registry trial that is seeking to validate a blood test to detect cancer in its early state. In this trial, patients with newly diagnosed but not yet treated cancer are having labs drawn, and then this material is compared to patterns and changes within the tumor biopsy taken at diagnosis. If these patterns prove to be identical, we will be able to develop a better and more precise blood test that can help find cancers earlier. Clearly, earlier detection of cancer leads to better survival rates. But we’re also hoping to learn more about early cellular changes and genetic alterations to improve our ability to treat cancers in the early phases of development.

Of course, the newest scientific breakthrough in cancer research is immunotherapy. It has been an extraordinary privilege to be a part of a research community studying the new agents that control programmed cell death – cancer cells falling away like leaves from a tree due to use of new therapies.

Empowering the immune system to effectively kill cancer cells using new PDL-1 inhibitors, drugs that help your immune system attack cancer cells, has been revolutionary in tumor management and control. We now see patients with advanced stages of cancers like melanoma, lung cancer, renal cell cancer, and lymphomas – as well as other solid malignancies – enjoy long-term survival that was never previously achieved. Understanding the importance of the immune system in detection of tumors that arise from a person’s native cells has been extremely helpful in our understanding of tumor growth and metastasis.

How does research in Texas Oncology’s community-based setting help advance treatment innovations?

I think it is a very valuable asset to have research available in community cancer centers like ours. For many patients, the cost of treatment overall is a major challenge, and to have to travel and be away from home and support systems can be a barrier to care. Having leading-edge treatment opportunities closer to home eliminates one important barrier to access to care.

Also, our San Antonio community is unique, with its large Hispanic population. Having participation of cancer survivors from different ethnic groups in national research programs is a challenge. Offering research closer to our patients’ homes with supportive families, helps patients embrace research as an option in cancer care. This improves our understanding of how individuals from different ethnic backgrounds tolerate and respond to new therapies. Providing options for patients to get care locally means that men and women with life-threatening cancers can access these promising treatments.

What's the outlook for achieving the 'holy grail' of curing cancer?

I think every generation in time has felt that they are close to curing cancer. Thanks to clinical research, we are learning more about the complex process known as cancer. We now are studying the many contributing avenues of cancer. We realize that our own microenvironment, bacteria, immune system, and the breakdown that occurs due to mutations of protective genes that suppress cancer growth, all are players in cancer development, growth, and metastases. We are seeing more and more successes daily in targeting these areas. Thanks to tireless work and commitment from so many in the research field, these new treatments are being rapidly incorporated into the array of medicines, technology, and techniques that we use to improve outcomes and, yes, provide cures for people who face cancer.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.