Advances Against Cancer?
It seems that nothing much has happened lately in the war against cancer. We hear about sensational breakthroughs that turn out to be not so important. Is there anything on the horizon that will make a difference?
Actually, I was recently thinking that we're making some real progress against cancer. In the past few months, I've read about a number of exciting developments that should improve the outlook for some patients, particularly those who need surgery. I'm glad to report that most of these new techniques emphasize precise targeting of cancer cells and are less invasive than previous methods. Here's a rundown on some of the most exciting innovations:
The "Smart Scalpel": This microlaser device (about the size of a dime) guides surgeons toward malignant growths so they won't have to remove healthy tissue in an effort to ensure that all cancerous tissue is destroyed. Developed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia Laboratories, the smart scalpel actually detects the presence of cancer cells on the basis of their cell density -- cancer cells contain more protein than healthy ones.
Radiofrequency Energy (RF): Here's a potential alternative to surgery for patients with kidney cancer (and eventually some other malignancies). Essentially, this technique heats and kills tumors without harming healthy tissue. RF energy is inserted through the skin and guided to the tumor via a small needle with an electrode on its tip. After it makes contact, the RF energy literally "cooks" the tumor. This is an outpatient procedure that requires only light sedation. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health say that many of the patients treated so far have remained cancer-free for years. RF can be used on tumors which were once believed inoperable.
Gamma Knife: Already in use, this "knife" is actually a giant 20-ton radiation machine that can zap and destroy brain tumors (once considered inoperable), as well as malformed blood vessels in the brain that can lead to life-threatening bleeding. No surgical incision is necessary.
Magnets for Chemo: This is a nifty new way to draw chemotherapy drugs directly to malignant growths and keep them there. Still in the testing stage, this technique uses a magnet the size of a soup can and chemotherapy agents that have been infused with magnetic particles. Doctors put the magnet over the tumor's location in the body; it then pulls the magnetized drug right to the site. In studies so far, this technique has been used on liver cancer, but it could eventually work against cancers of the lung, pancreas, and brain. Once the current promising results are confirmed, the innovation would be a boon to patients -- it would reduce the nasty side effects of chemo, including nausea and hair loss.