Advancing Treatments for Mesothelioma and Other Rare Cancers

Two researchers examining test tube

In recent years cancer research has been boosted significantly by funding, attention and scientific advancements. With the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act in 2016, which provided funding for the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, cancer research, collaboration and translational medicine have been creating many more opportunities and options for patients.

In the past, for those facing rare cancers, advancements have tragically been far and few between. In the case of a cancer like malignant mesothelioma – which has a low rate of incidence, aggressive progression and typically poor prognosis – it was difficult to develop anything more innovative than incremental improvements without proper funding and attention.

The nationally funded and supported effort of the Cures Act is not only benefiting the cancer field as a whole, but providing crucially important advancements in care and treatment options for those with rare cancers.

Data Sharing and Collaboration

In addition to increasing cancer awareness, support and funding, the legislation provides an advanced framework and builds a network of facilities to increase data sharing and collaboration. Breaking through research silos and barriers of access to information are aiding clinicians and researchers in many ways, including expediting translational therapeutic options to reach patients faster.

The influx of studies, clinical trials and experimental treatments are increasing the chances and opportunities for those with limited time and access previously.

Immunotherapy Drugs to Treat Cancers like Mesothelioma

A rare cancer, mesothelioma is only diagnosed in about 3,000 new cases each year in the United States, and most patients aren’t diagnosed until later stages. Mesothelioma patients are facing an average prognosis of 15 months, limited chemotherapy efficacy and tumors that are often not viable for surgical options or resection. This creates the perfect storm to isolate patients and clinicians from primary research and extensive data necessary for treatment innovation and improvements.

However, thanks to the new network and an increased push for research, breakthroughs like immunotherapy, which have been tested on more common cancers, are now evolving into options for those with rare cancers, including mesothelioma. For instance, research in lung cancer has led to new immunotherapy drugs as an option for those with pleural mesothelioma.

While pleural mesothelioma is not lung cancer, it does affect the lungs. Researchers have found that both lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma share the PD-L1 protein, a gene inhibitor that can stop the immune system from acting against diseases. This finding opened doors for advanced treatment through immunotherapy-based clinical trials and drug therapies, like pembrolizumab (Keytruda), that target PD-L1.

Evolving Diagnostic Testing Through Bioinformatics and Genomics

Beyond the groundbreaking work being done in immunotherapy, research looking into bioinformatics and genomics have paved the way for strides in diagnostic testing.

Improving the chances of early detection can mean the difference between being able to explore treatment and being left with little recourse or options beyond palliative care for many with rare cancers, since diagnosis often comes at later stages.

From lung cancer research, breath tests have been successfully adapted to biomarkers and indicators specific to mesothelioma. Since a full-needle biopsy in addition to CT scans is the only way to accurately diagnose mesothelioma, the promise of a non-invasive, accurate and quick diagnostic tool could revolutionize the standard of treatment for those at risk for mesothelioma. Providing people a greater chance at early detection means more options for treatment, and hopefully extended survival.

The Promise of Personalized Cancer Vaccines

Perhaps the most promising new frontier for oncology care is personalized cancer vaccines. Aided by research into genomics, the discovery of the BAP1 gene and melanoma research, the vaccines represent a shift into potentially significant research and trials for mesothelioma. Having the ability to target rare cancers and diseases would mark a drastic evolution in research, since in the past these have been too expensive and restricted mostly to orphan status.

Immunotherapy, genomic testing, genetic mapping and diagnostic improvements are allowing us to offer more experimental treatments and clinical trials, holding promise for even greater breakthroughs in the future.

As with most research, data can be useful in more ways than one. Uncovering a gene connected to one cancer could open up connections between them or finding a biomarker that can aid in less invasive and expedient diagnosis for even rare cancers. The widespread nature of research in all directions and aspects of cancer care are creating an almost trickle-down effect, from the more commonly known and funded cancers to the rarest.

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About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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