13 February 2008

Cancer: the good news

Amidst all the dire predictions for the spread of cancer in the developing world, researchers are making huge strides in the fight against the disease.

The Cancer Association of South Africa has warned that Kaposi's sarcoma is to become a major problem in the country over the next five years, while the World Health Organisation recently warned that a tidal wave of cancer will hit the developing world.

Fortunately though, it isn't all bad news: a number of recent breakthroughs show that researchers are making great strides in the fight against cancer.

The tests of the future
Research reported in the journal Cancer Research finds that going for a prostate cancer test may soon be as simple as giving a urine sample. According to the study, the new test is more accurate than the current standard test for prostate cancer, which measures levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA) in the blood.

And in a similar study, US researchers are developing a saliva test that will tell if a breast tumour is benign or malignant. The test measures levels of 49 different cancer-related proteins in saliva.

Though still some years from widespread use, it is thought that the test may eventually offer a cheaper alternative to mammograms – something that would be particularly useful in poorer countries.

Saliva tests for head and neck cancers are also in the pipeline.

Camera pill to spot cancer
Early diagnosis is key to the prevention of oesophageal cancer. Usually, diagnosis requires being sedated and made to swallow a camera which then takes pictures in your oesophagus (the pipe connecting your throat to your stomach).

Now, researchers are developing camera pills to ease the discomfort. These require no sedation and some of them do not have any wire attached. For optimal accuracy though, some pills hang by a thin thread, allowing doctors to adjust the position of the pill in the oesophagus by pulling on the wire.

One such pill has a wire that is only 1.4 millimetres thick and can take 15 colour images per second consisting of 500 lines per inch.

Training the body to fight back
Researchers have also announced that they are starting trials of a vaccine against ovarian cancer. The technique involves taking cells from a patient's tumour and using them to develop immune cells that are then implanted back into the patient's body.

A similar vaccine to fight breast cancer is also being worked on.

It should also be noted that scientists have already had huge success with the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. An estimated 70% of cervical cancer cases are due to HPV infection.

Will antioxidants help?
Although much has been made of the supposed cancer-fighting properties of antioxidants, a recent review has found that a daily antioxidant will not reduce your chances of developing cancer and may in fact increase your risk.

It should however be pointed out that supplementation has been shown to help in certain very specific cases.

In future, vaccines and targeted supplementation may play a huge part in side-stepping cancer. For now though, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and above all, not smoking, remains the most sure-fire ways to reduce your risk. - (Marcus Low, Health24)

Sources include Reuters Health, Sapa, HealthDay and EurekAlert

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