A Cancer Breakthrough

Researchers have made what looks like a “once in a generation” breakthrough in fighting cancer, advancing a technique that could become one of the “pillars of oncology,” next to surgery and chemotherapy. The technique enables the immune system, which ordinarily treats malignant cancer cells as if they were healthy, normal cells, to identify and attack tumors.

One of the first drugs developed to exploit this approach, ipilimumab, was approved four years ago and has shown successful results in about 19 percent of cases. But when administered alongside a new drug, nivolumab, the rate of remission shoots up to 58 percent. The Times of London:

The drugs are administered through a drip every few weeks and are generally less debilitating than chemotherapy. They do have side-effects, including inflammation, eczema, tiredness and liver problems.

Peter Johnson, the chief clinician at Cancer Research UK, said: “The evidence emerging from clinical trials suggests that we are at the beginning of a whole new era for cancer treatments.”

He said that about half the people treated in the trials seemed to have responded well, adding: “We are hoping that in many cases these effects will be maintained in the long term, possibly leading to cures for some . . . this looks like the next big step forward for cancer treatment.”

Discoveries like these point to a bright future for medicine. The 21st-century is shaping up to be the century of biology, much like the 19th was the century of chemistry, and the 20th the century of physics. The fusion of information technology and biology is where the breakthroughs are happening. The inner workings of cells are at heart an intricate system for information processing and transmission; science is advancing quite rapidly in both fields. Medical treatments are just one of the many potential applications of this new technology.

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