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Medical Breakthroughs: Cancer

Pioneering drugs, products and technologies provide an array of fresh possibilities

Medical breakthroughs

En español | Pioneering drugs that remedy once-intractable diseases; clever products that make everyday living easier for people with injury or illness; innovative technologies that provide relief at a touch of a button — by all measures, 2017 has been a year of astounding health care advancements. Here are some of the ways medical trailblazers and researchers are creating fresh possibilities for you and your family.



Adrienne Skinner

PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN DOBEN: MAKE-UP: DOMINIC SANTIAGO/ROBERT MOULTON

A clinical trial helped Adrienne Skinner to fight her stage 4 cancer.

New Hope At Stage 4 

Adrienne Skinner awoke from cancer surgery to stunning news. “I came to, and he told me we couldn’t do it,” Skinner says of her surgeon, who had planned to remove a tumor from the end of her bile duct. “He said, ‘Cancer has invaded your liver. It’s stage 4. It’s systemic.’ ” She was diagnosed with ampullary cancer, a form so rare that no standard treatments existed. Until now.

After some “pretty nasty” chemotherapy, Skinner, 60, of Larchmont, N.Y., became part of a clinical trial for pembrolizumab, marketed by Merck as Keytruda. 

The drug helps the body’s immune system fight the disease. Skinner started infusion treatments in April 2014. In July her surgeon took another biopsy. “He said, ‘If somebody hadn’t told me you had cancer, I never would have known,’ ” she notes. The tumor was gone.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since approved further uses of Keytruda, such as for patients with a genetic mutation called mismatch repair deficiency. The drug continues to be tested for use by patients without the mutation. It is approved for some head and neck, lung, bladder and metastatic melanoma cancers, as well as Hodgkin lymphoma. 

During clinical trials, the medication was famously used to treat former President Jimmy Carter, who two years ago announced he had cancer in his brain and liver and said his fate was “in the hands of God, whom I worship.” Four months later, his cancer was gone.

Skinner has seen similar results. She’s back at work and makes a point of swimming and playing tennis. “I’m running around like a maniac. I’m out gardening right now,” she says. “I know what a gift is, and I know the gift of life." —Mindy Fetterman 

Medical Breakthroughs

Craig Cutler

The Dig­ni­Cap could help nearly 800,000 Americans avoid chemo-related hair loss.

Hair-Saving Device

Two years ago the FDA approved scalp-cooling caps, which help breast cancer patients keep their hair during chemotherapy. Now one such device, the Dig­ni­Cap, has also been cleared for patients with other solid-tumor cancers. That could help nearly 800,000 Americans avoid chemo-related hair loss. Why it’s key: One in 12 women with breast cancer avoid potentially lifesaving treatment for fear of going bald. Says patient Lauren Jones of the Paxman Scalp Cooler device: “It’s liberating.” —Sari Harrar

Computerized Treatment

Three words cancer patients should know: Watson for Oncology. IBM’s artificial intelligence supercomputer can take test results and comb through tens of millions of medical documents to make recommendations for care. “One doctor doesn’t have the computing power to crunch all the world’s data,” says Jay Wohlgemuth, chief medical officer of Quest Diagnostics. Last year, IBM and Quest expanded Watson for use by clinics. Doctors send a tissue sample to Quest, which identifies genetic mutations and sends data to Watson to unearth lifesaving treatments. —Lexi Pandell

A Pen That Detects Cancer

Removing a tumor is tough: Surgeons may fail to get the entire cancer or may remove too much healthy tissue. Pending clinical trials in 2018, the MasSpec Pen will allow surgeons to analyze tissue midsurgery, so all of the bad, and less of the good, is removed. —Stephen Perrine

Antibodies and More

"Through cheek-swab tests you can have your DNA screened. The more we understand genetic data, the better we can manage cancer."

Joanne B. Weidhaas, M.D. 

Some of the most exciting developments in oncology include treatments that are being developed using antibodies that disrupt the tumor’s shield, so your immune system can attack, Joanne B. Weidhaas, M.D., tells AARP. She is director, Division of Molecular and Cellular Oncology, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA . "Or treatments where we take cells out of your immune system, reengineer them and return them to fight the cancer." 

Cheek-swab tests to screen your DNA are also beneficial, Weidhaas says. "The more we understand genetic data, the better we can manage cancer." —Selene Yeager

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