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Cancer Treatment and Biotechnology

With a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.

A spinning device used to mix cell culture media: biotech companies use these devices to grow cancer cells for research.

A spinning device used to mix cell culture media: biotech companies use these devices to grow cancer cells for research.

The First Cancer Treatments

The fight against cancer rages around the globe, with battles taking place in research centers, universities, and biotech companies. Pharmaceutical companies have made many important advances in suppressing tumor growth and in early detection of cancer using improved testing techniques.

The first treatments for cancer were discovered by scientists studying the effect of mustard gas on soldiers. In 1946, nitrogen mustard was found to shrink lymphomas. Shortly thereafter, a physician named Farber discovered that leukemia cells grew rapidly when exposed to folic acid. Using anti-folates (like methotrexate) to reduce the presence of folic acid in the blood, Farber was able to temporarily halt the course of the deadliest childhood cancer in that time period. The development of chemicals to treat cancer was an important development, though chemotherapy comes at a high price. The drugs are also toxic to the body’s other fast-growing cells and can have damaging side effects.

Over 250 types of cancer have been described, and each type of cancer causes different cellular changes in the malignant cells. The great variety and complexity of these cells make cancer a difficult disease to fight. As our understanding of genetics, tumor cells, and the immune system grows, better treatments will be discovered at an ever-increasing pace.

Cancer Biotech Companies

Who are the biggest players in the world of biotech cancer research? These companies all have major research initiatives to find better treatments and cures for various types of cancer:

Bristol Myers Squibb has been researching and developing cancer treatments since the 1970s, when Richard Nixon declared a "war on cancer." Conventional chemotherapeutic drugs, tumor growth suppressors (signal transduction inhibitors) and immunological therapies are under development.

Merck & Co. has a team devoted to the discovery of treatment options for skin cancer, along with many other cancer types (ranging from soft tissue sarcomas to breast cancer). Immunotherapeutics, chemotherapeutics, targeted biologics, and other drugs are currently being investigated through clinical trials.

Roche Holding AG is another biotech company racing to find cures and treatments for cancer. Roche is developing many drugs to suppress and stop cancer growth and to detect cancer with novel screening tests. Targeted biopharmaceuticals which use antibodies specific to tumor cells are among the types of drugs under development by Roche.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. has partnered with the National Cancer Coalition to help patients gain access to cancer treatments in the developing world. Teva has drugs to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, chronic lymphocytotic leukemia (CLL), and promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Research on novel compounds and the development of pharmaceuticals to fight malignant cells is ongoing.

GlaxoSmithKline Plc also has a commitment to the developing world and is engaged in the fight eliminate infectious and parasitic diseases common to tropical regions. In addition, GlaxoSmithKline has a reduced cost structure for patients receiving patented drugs (including cancer drugs) in developing countries. This company is a leader in developing cutting-edge pharmaceuticals, including immunomodulators for solid tumors, targeted antibodies against specific cancer types, and kinase inhibitors, which help to inhibit tumor growth.

Cancer Statistics

Different types of cancer affect populations differently: the highest rates of stomach cancer are found in East Asia, for example, and Eastern Europe has the highest death rate from lung cancer. Environmental and genetic factors affect cancer rates.

The American Cancer Society released statistics for the United States in 2011: lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women, primarily due to cell damage induced from smoking cigarettes. Other cancers do not affect men and women equally: esophageal cancer is more common in men than women.

While men and women both get breast cancer, the rates of breast cancer are remarkably lower for men than women. It doesn't rate among the top 10 cancers for men but is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Prostate cancer doesn't affect women at all but is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men.

Six different chemotherapy drugs: biotech companies work to discover new chemotherapy drugs and to find ways to make them more effective.

Six different chemotherapy drugs: biotech companies work to discover new chemotherapy drugs and to find ways to make them more effective.

Types of Cancer Treatments

There are many cancer treatment options available in the modern era. The following therapies may be used in isolation or in combination to attack malignancies:

Chemotherapy and Biotechnology

Toxic chemicals are used to destroy cancer cells. Many chemotherapeutic drugs are not specific to the cancer cells, so significant side effects may result from taking the medications. Chemotherapy may ease cancer symptoms, control the malignancy, or cure the cancer. When chemotherapy is used in combination with another technique (like radiation therapy), it is called adjuvant chemotherapy. The type of chemotherapy used will depend on the type of cancer, as different agents work better for different malignancies. Some forms of cancer do not respond well to chemotherapeutic drugs.

Biotechnology companies are developing new chemotherapy drugs, including targeted therapies. The targeted drugs are designed to attack specific markers on cancer cells, reducing the side effects of the drug. Another approach uses antibodies attached to the chemotherapy drug: the antibody seeks out the cancer cells and delivers the drug directly to the source. Another development is the use of fat molecules called liposomes to deliver the drugs to the cancer cells – this reduces the number of side effects experienced by the patient.

Since cancer cells can become resistant to chemotherapy (the cells develop molecular pumps to actively eject the toxic drugs from the cells), new drugs are being developed to shut down the pumps in cancer cells. This helps to overcome drug resistance, which can become a problem when treating malignancies.

Another angle is the development of chemoprotective drugs. These drugs help protect organs which may be damaged by chemotherapy. An example of a chemoprotective drug is N-Acetylcysteine, which protects against the effects of a chemotherapy drug called cisplatin. N-Acetylcysteine prevents cisplatin from binding to cells – since N-Acetylecysteine does not cross the blood-brain barrier, it could be used in combination with cisplatin. The cisplatin would reach the brain and kill tumor cells there, but the N-Acetylcysteine has the potential to prevent organ damage from this drug throughout the rest of the body.

Monoclonal antibodies are able to target specific markers on cancer cells to deliver drugs or radioactive isotopes. The antibodies will not affect normal cells.

Monoclonal antibodies are able to target specific markers on cancer cells to deliver drugs or radioactive isotopes. The antibodies will not affect normal cells.

Biotech Advances in Immune Therapies for Cancer

One of the newest cancer treatments involves the use of immune drugs. Monoclonal antibodies are designed to attack a specific characteristic on cancer cells – these antibodies will not attack the body’s typical cells but only the defective cancer cells.

The antibodies are able to work in several ways: they may stop the growth of blood vessel formation in tumors (angiogenesis), deliver chemotherapy drugs or radiation specifically to a cancer cell, bind with growth receptors to prevent cancer cell division, or simply make the cancer cells more obvious to your own immune system by attaching certain proteins that trigger the patient’s own immune reaction.

An example of this drug class includes Ibritumomab, which couples radioactive particles to a monoclonal antibody. The antibody seeks out non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cells and delivers the radiation directly to the affected cells while preserving normal cells.

Immune therapies do have side effects, however, including flu-like symptoms, rashes, diarrhea, and allergic reactions. Occasionally, the drugs may cause lowered blood cell counts, which can be extremely dangerous. Many of these drugs are still experimental and are in clinical trials, while others (like Provenge for Prostate Cancer) are currently in use with proven efficacy.

Genomics Aids Cancer Treatment in Breast Cancer

Diagnostic Tests for Cancer

The early detection of cancer is as vital as the development of new treatments. Finding cancer cells before they have had a chance to metastasize throughout the body is a critical element of the war on cancer. Blood tests for cancer, genetic testing for cancer, and various types of screening tools are under development by several biotechnology companies.

Cancer marker tests are one common detection method. These tests measure markers, such as prostate serum antigen (PSA), in the blood. Cancer marker tests may be used to identify cancer and to monitor the efficacy of cancer treatment in an individual.

With ever-increasing treatment options, newer diagnostic tests identify the specific genome of the cancer cells. Once the genome has been studied, the most appropriate treatment may be selected: this is called genomics.

A very personalized approach to cancer is enabled with these tests, which are able to detect specific mutations that might respond to certain chemotherapy drugs or other targeted biological agents.

An example of genomics in action is the case of a young woman who entered the Dana Farber Institute with melanoma. The skin cancer had metastasized: through the use of genomics, the team found that her particular melanoma actually had a mutation called KIT – a mutation usually seen in chronic myelogenous leukemia, not melanoma. The therapy of choice was unusual: they used a drug called Gleevec, which is actually designed for CML, not melanoma.

Because of the specific genetic mutations of her melanoma cells, she was completely cured of melanoma with a drug designed for CML. She is the first case of metastatic melanoma to experience a complete cure.

Looking Ahead

The use of designer drugs and advanced screening techniques is increasing due to the efforts of biotech companies and other research entities. As we move forward in the 21st century, new discoveries and a better understanding of genetics, immunology, and cell growth characteristics will spawn cures for various types of cancer.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 04, 2019:

I am glad the information in my article helped you, Brendan!

Brendan L. Cain on October 03, 2019:

Thank you so much! This helped me in my biology class essay. Thank you!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 29, 2012:

Leading a healthy lifestyle can definitely help prevent cancer, conradofontanilla, though a large proportion of cancers have a genetic basis and are due to genetic mutations that prevent normal cellular apoptosis (programmed cell death). Drug companies have effectively cured CML (Gleevec) and other large-scale trials are beginning with targeted immune therapies - which CURE rather than treat cancer. Childhood leukemia (ALL) was 100% fatal before the advent of chemotherapy, and now the cure rate is 80%.

conradofontanilla from Philippines on July 28, 2012:

The method of preventing cancer has been around long time ago. It is cheap. These are antioxidants. However, the basis of antioxidants has been ignored by conventional medicine including pharmaceutical companies because there is not much profit from them, if at all. Free radicals and reactive oxygen species are the causes of cancer.

Research on free radicals is advancing in alternative medicine which found the explanation of how nitroglycerin works. Drug companies concentrate on treatment because it is where the big bucks are. Nothing much for prevention or cure.

Chemotherapy produces a lot of free radicals that damage cancer cells. But conventional medicine will not mention about the free radicals. There is a way to avoid chemotherapy.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 07, 2012:

Me, too, Simone. It is a terrible disease and the likelihood of getting some form of it increases with age. I really think we're going to see a revolution in cancer treatment within the next decade or so.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on June 07, 2012:

Another fascinating Hub, leahlefler! I had not known about the use of immune drugs to treat cancer in such a targeted manner. That's amazing! Now... I just wish NO CANCER EXISTED ANYMORE!! It freaks. Me. Out.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 06, 2012:

Om, I hope your friend has a full recovery with as few side effects as possible. There are some newer treatments on the horizon that will hopefully spare cancer patients the side effects of conventional cancer therapy.

Om Paramapoonya on June 06, 2012:

This is very interesting to know. I actually have a friend who's been battling prostate cancer. He opted for a radiation implant instead of chemo, and he seems to be doing pretty well.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 06, 2012:

There are a lot of new treatments in development. I didn't write about cancer vaccines, but they're another new weapon on the front to prevent cancer and to extend patients' lives. The preventive vaccines are generally for infectious diseases that cause cancer (like Hepatitis B - liver cancer, or HPV - cervical cancer). Provenge is a vaccine used to treat people who already have cancer - it is manufactured by Dendreon and attacks an antigen on prostate cancer cells.

Dianna Mendez on June 05, 2012:

Well done! I think that I have learned something new today. I didn't realize there was such a variety of treatments. Voted up.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 05, 2012:

Thanks, krsharp05 - early detection is such an important part of identifying cancer for successful treatment. I am all for effective screening programs - they save lives!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 05, 2012:

I will have to look at Ariad - there are actually many, many companies working on new cancer therapies. I couldn't possibly list them all - but I have a feeling this century is going to see huge leaps in the ability to treat and cure cancer.

Fresh food and healthy living certainly help a great deal. Cancer is so multi-faceted and there are genetic predispositions to certain cancers as well - not to mention environmental exposures to carcinogens in daily life. Prevention is extremely important - lung cancer rates are beginning to decrease because smoking is much less common than it used to be in the 1940s.

Kristi Sharp from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota. on June 05, 2012:

Very well researched and presented. Early detection has been the saving grace in my family. Very interesting information. -K

Eliminate Cancer from Massachusetts on June 05, 2012:

Look at Ariad as well, they are working on some promising new treatments for hard-to-treat cancers.

Of course, in my opinion, the BEST treatment is prevention. Even with treatment, cancer is never really considered 'cured'. Living with cancer, even if you survive, is a bummer. But a third of all cancers can be prevented with diet and lifestyle changes.

A group in France predicts that cancer rates will increase 75% by 2030. The cost of healthcare is going to be outrageous. We can't keep eating junk, and trying to lose weight with diet soda...

If society can get back to real food, then maybe we can curb cancer - we need to work the cure from both ends.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on June 05, 2012:

Thanks, spartucusjones - there are many novel cancer treatments under development. Bristol Myers Squibb has an experimental immune therapy that shrank tumors in skin, lung, and kidney cancers (the drug prompts the body's killer T-cells to attack the cancer cells). The future of cancer treatment is very promising!

CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on June 05, 2012:

Informative and well researched hub. I definitely learn something new concerning different types of cancer treatments.