5 Cancer Research Stories Worth Following – Spring 2015

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What’s exciting in cancer research right now?  In this post, I’ll briefly review several notable cancer research stories that have come out this Spring.

These are a few of the recent stories that seem to have the greatest potential impact, at least from my perspective, and that I know I’ll want to follow as they develop further.

Therapies that boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer continued to figure highly in cancer research news this Spring, including news from the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

Immune System Therapies

One of the highlights of the AACR meeting was a report of preliminary results of a clinical trial of the drug Keytruda (generic name is pembrolizumab) for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.  The study results also were published in the New England Journal of Medicine

Nearly half of the patients in the study whose tumors expressed high levels of a protein called PD-L1 had their cancers respond to the drug, and most of the patients in this group are still alive after more than a year.

Keytruda acts by “releasing the brakes” on the immune system. It has already received FDA approval for the treatment of advanced melanoma. For more about the study, see this report in MedPage Today.

Combining Therapies to Increase Effectiveness

Whether it’s immune system therapies or other molecularly targeted therapies, researchers are beginning to find that combining therapies can produce better results than individual therapies alone. Targeted therapies can also be combined with traditional chemotherapy or hormone therapies.

Typically, advanced cancers become resistant to an individual targeted therapy at some point, and it’s thought that combining therapies could help address this by blocking two different pathways that the cancer could use to progress.

Dr. Srivani Ravoori has written two interesting articles about studies on combination therapies that were presented at the AACR meeting. The first is on immunotherapy combinations for advanced melanoma and the other article is about combinations of molecularly targeted therapies for subgroups of breast and ovarian cancer.

Post-Treatment Monitoring

An experimental technique, sometimes referred to as a liquid biopsy, is beginning to show promise as a tool for detecting early signs of relapse or to determine when a treatment is no longer working, the New York Times reports. The test requires only a blood draw, and the patient’s blood is then screened for fragments of circulating tumor DNA.

A study reported in The Lancet found that, for patients with a type of lymphoma, circulating tumor DNA successfully identified most patients at risk for recurrence of their disease.

Another recent study found that, for patients with early stage breast cancer, periodic testing for circulating tumor DNA may be able to detect signs of metastasis long before symptoms are evident. Prospective studies with larger  patient groups will be needed to confirm these findings.

Breast Density and Cancer Risk

Having dense breast tissue is one of the factors that has been shown to be associated with an increased risk for breast cancer. Mammograms can also be harder to read and therefore less informative for women with higher breast density. However, this condition is extremely common and there is no consensus on when and if additional imaging tests are necessary for women with dense breast tissue.

A study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that breast density considered along with other key risk factors including age, ethnicity, family history and history of breast biopsy provides a better indication than density alone of a woman’s risk for an invasive cancer appearing between mammograms.

Dr. Susan Love explains the study’s findings in a recent blog post, noting that not only breast density, but other factors as well, need to be taken into consideration when women and their doctors discuss additional screening.

Reducing Long Term Side Effects

The side effects of breast cancer treatment, including adverse psychological effects, can sometimes extend for years after treatment has been completed. One intervention that has been shown to be helpful is specialized training in stress management techniques. A study reported in the journal Cancer provides new evidence of the long-term benefits of this intervention.

In a randomized, controlled clinical trial, about 240 women received either a one-day psychoeducational seminar or a 10-week course in cognitive-behavioral stress management. Not surprisingly, in the short-term it was found that the training helped the women cope successfully with the stress of treatment. But interestingly, in a group of 100 women contacted for follow-up 8 to 15 years later, the women who had received the stress management training reported levels of depression and quality of life that were comparable to women who had never had breast cancer.

That’s it for this time. If there was another recent cancer research story or article that caught your attention or if you have thoughts on any of what I’ve included, I’d love to hear from you!

Related Posts
6 Cancer Research Stories Worth Following – Winter 2015
10 Things We Learned About Progress Against Cancer in 2014

Photo by Lisa DeFerrari


  1. Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for this summary. I agree these stories are worth following for sure. I am particularly interested in the one about post-treatment monitoring for obvious reasons I guess. And combining two therapies seems to make a lot of sense. I thought that was already being done. Thank you again for this helpful synopsis.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      Yes, I think a way to monitor early stage cancer patients for signs of recurrence before any symptoms arise would really be something. It will be certainly be interesting to follow what happens with this. On combining therapies, my sense is that what is new is the combining of certain specific kinds of therapies, i.e immune system therapies or the new types of molecularly targeted therapies–with each other or with other kinds of cancer therapies. Thanks so much for commenting!

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