In January 2018, the American Cancer Society announced the cancer death rate in the United States had declined 26 percent since 1991. Additionally, the most recent data available suggests the number of new cancer diagnoses has been steadily decreasing at a rate of 2 percent per year in the last decade. The American Cancer Society suggests the decline in these rates can be attributed to a lower incidence of common major cancer forms, including colorectal, prostate, lung and breast cancer, in both men and women.
While this good news should inspire hope for the future of cancer treatment and care, there is still a long way to go in developing the technology needed to effectively diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent cancer in the global population. According to academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the report “Convergence: The Future of Health,” the best way to gain ground on these goals is for the medical community to widely embrace the concept of Convergence in Healthcare. This movement aims to bring members of the chemistry, physical sciences, life sciences, computing and mathematics sectors together to approach medical research in a way that transcends collaboration and accelerates innovation to solve the world’s most pressing health problems. Listed below are three things to know about the potential effects of Convergence in Healthcare on the treatment of cancer patients.
Convergence in Healthcare could reduce reliance on radiation and toxic chemicals in cancer treatment
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately half of the people diagnosed with cancer in the United States are treated with radiation therapy. Additionally, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that almost 650,000 people receive chemotherapy as a cancer treatment every year. While each form of treatment saves the lives of many patients annually, both have the negative side effect of causing damage to healthy cells in the tissue surrounding the area of the cancer site along with the cancer cells themselves.
Convergence in Healthcare could lead to the development of new, targeted treatment methods to give doctors greater control over where drug therapies are delivered within the body, limiting the amount of damage to healthy tissue and increasing the overall effectiveness of cancer treatment. Scientists applying convergent principles to this area of research are exploring the application of concepts from fields such as advanced engineering, immunology and nanotechnology to design more effective and less harmful cancer treatments. Examples include using nanoparticle drug delivery systems to target cancer cells.
Convergence in Healthcare could allow doctors to diagnose cancer at earlier stages for a lower cost
In general, patients who receive a cancer diagnosis in the earliest stages of the disease have better chances of survival and prolonging their lives. Unfortunately, the early detection tools and methods currently available to the medical sector are often expensive and not as accurate as physicians would like.
With the help of Convergence in Healthcare, scientists are hoping to give doctors more effective, accessible ways to screen their patients for cancer. Some of the most promising innovations include a paper-strip urine test employing the use of nanotechnology and synthetic biomarkers to signal the presence of cancer in the body. Another inexpensive and effective method researchers are experimenting with is an in-depth, highly sensitive DNA sequencing method that reveals the presence of cancer during a routine blood test. Ideally, this form of sequencing would become standard practice for patients visiting their doctors for annual screenings, increasing the likelihood of finding cancer at an early stage.
Convergence in Healthcare could lead to the development of a cancer vaccine
Beyond more effective treatment and early detection, convergent research could ultimately offer humanity the ability to prevent cancer with a vaccine. In spite of the positive statistics mentioned above that reveal a declining incidence of cancer in the US population, the disease remains the second leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease. The creation of a cancer vaccine through convergence research could help patients around the world protect themselves more fully from the effects of this illness.
Fortunately, researchers are already employing convergent principles for this purpose. Scientists are experimenting with a vaccine capable of latching onto albumin within the body, allowing it to travel to the lymph nodes while protected from natural waste-removal functions. Once it arrives in the lymph nodes, the vaccine instigates a strong T-cell immune response to tumors present within the body, destroying cells at the source. Additionally, through the use of high-throughput molecular profiling, researchers are hoping to create personalized cancer vaccines using patient protein-encoding genes and the protein fragments found on the surface of cancer cells. To create this form of cancer vaccine, scientists are working to identify promising antigen candidates through the development of technology that allows for swift, quantitative single-cell analysis.