2013: A breakthrough year in cancer research

WASHINGTON – For the fight against cancer, 2013 was a year of progress and there are indications that some big breakthroughs are on the way.

The American Society for Clinical Oncology recently released its annual survey of top clinical trials and found significant advances, particularly in the areas of genetics and immunotherapy.

Dr. Giuseppe Giaccone, an internationally recognized lung cancer expert, has been monitoring the trends from his posts at Georgetown University and Medstar Georgetown University Hospital.

Giaccone, who is associate director for clinical research at Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and a university professor, says “one of the major advances for all cancers is the better understanding that we have of the genetics of these type of cancers.”

He says genetic information is enabling cancer specialists to determine risk and make treatment more precise.

The problem, of course, is coming up with the necessary technology to get that information, and develop the necessary tests for various types of cancer. But Giaccone emphasizes “we are getting there.”

He notes that the American Society for Clinical Oncology’s 2013 report lists nine new cancer drugs and most of them are targeted to specific genetic groups of patients.

That means patients likely to respond will get the drugs, while those less apt to get a positive reaction will be spared the toxicity.

Giaccone says genetics is very much at the heart of the cancer research taking place in our region, but important work is also being done at labs around the country on immunotherapy.

It’s a concept that has been around for decades, but has produced few results in clinical trials till now. The goal is to, in essence, train the immune system to attack cancer.

“Immunotherapy has been around for 30 or 40 years,” says Giaccone, “but really the promising results are being seen now, and I think this is just the beginning of a new era.”

He says these are generally well tolerated drugs with the potential to help people with different cancer types.

Currently, breast and prostate cancer are the most common forms seen in the D.C. region. But lung cancer, which is the third most common, is the most deadly. It is the biggest cancer killer not just in the region, but nationwide.

Giaccone says it’s not unusual today to see a lung cancer patient show up at a hospital with a CD of his or her chest X-rays, CAT scans and the like. But he predicts, given all the innovation taking place in genetics, that before too long, each patient will arrive with a small computer chip that includes all the genetic information on their tumor — valuable data that will enable doctors to assess the best treatment for the cancer, and the prognosis for the patient.

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