After decades of genetic mystery, progressive advancements in biomedical and computer-aided research developed within the last 30 years have finally allowed researchers to uncover two distinctive pathways to managing, or potentially even ‘curing,’ cancer.
At The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Hospital and Research Center, John Weinstein, professor and dean of bioinformatics and computational biology, is on the forefront of 21st century cancer care.
The standard of cancer care has always revolved around three pillars: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. To researchers, the limits of chemotherapies and radiations signal not the limits of medicine, but the beginning of opportunity.
“There is always something more we can do,” said Tri Vu, medical oncologist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.
With the work of researchers like Weinstein and the national network of medical oncologists, research is leading development to the future of modern cancer medicine: immunotherapies, bioinformatics and computational biology.
“Cancer is principally a disease of the genome; genetic defects,” Weinstein said. “I calculated there are more code letters (of genes) than grains of sand in all the major beaches on earth.”
Cancer is a genetic disease. In the complex infrastructure of our DNA, genetic files can become corrupted, resulting in a multitude of health problems. Bioinformatics and computational biology utilize advanced algorithms to compute relationships between genes, disease and potential solutions.
“The latest new excitement is in immune therapy,” Weinstein said. “It’s essentially two kinds. One in which you take a person’s own white blood cells, do something to make them better at immune response and reinject them. The second is called ‘checkpoint immune inhibitors.’”
Cancer thrives on the ability to “disguise” itself by blocking molecular tags that would attract an immune response. Immunotherapy is a targeted treatment approach to trigger a patient’s immune system. The immune system can kill the cancer without the need of chemotherapies and radiations that poison an otherwise healthy body. Advancing immunotherapy medications like Opdivo, Yervoy and Keytruda, are already making extreme progress in the reduction of tumor size and remission than some standard therapies.
Considering the advanced complexities of cancer’s genetics and the future of immunotherapy treatments, their individual successes will be dependent on each other.
“That brings up an interesting question: What does ‘cure’ mean,” Weinstein asked. “The simplest answer is, we don’t know entirely.”
With the onset of artificial intelligence in the study of bioinformatics, the research of MD Anderson and Weinstein has progressed cancer medicine to an unprecedented point. Dealing with a disease when doctors hesitate to use the word “cure,” new forms of treatment could redefine the global definition of remission. Immunotherapies, bioinformatics and computational biology will continue to play into each other’s success and ultimately, the drugs of the future.
“It’s less likely that we will cure cancer, (it’s more likely we will) turn them into chronic diseases that people can live with,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein said his dream is to continue his work.
“To find a major advancement in the diagnosis, prevention, treatment, or dare I say, cure, for cancer. Not just for the benefit of patients, but for their family, and friends who also suffer,” Weinstein said.
With the amazingly complex, but deeply valued research that Weinstein and thousands of researchers and medical doctors across the globe produce every day, it may be safe to assume that one day this research will make cancer history.