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Making Cancer Manageable: August 12, 2012

Imagine turning some cancers from a terminal disease into a chronic illness. Researchers believe we aren’t too far off. They’re now tailoring drugs to individual patients to keep their cancer cells from replicating.

It may be one of cancer’s heavy hitters, but specialists are constantly seeking out alternatives to traditional chemotherapy.

“Everyone is aware of chemotherapy, which basically are drugs that treat parts of the body that are rapidly growing. Now cancer is obviously growing, so it can be affected by chemotherapy, but many other cells in the body are growing also such as the hair, such as the lining of the stomach, and the white blood cells. And of course those are affected by chemotherapy in a negative way,” says Dr. Lowell Hart, a hematologist and oncologist on the medical staff of Lee Memorial Health System.

So the new treatment buzzword is targeted therapies: drugs that combat cancer by interrupting its ability to spread.

“Targeted agents will try and hit the Achilles’ heal of cancer. The growth factor pathways that help control the growth of the cancer and knock that out without causing a lot of side effects to the patient,” says Dr. Hart.

Hopes are high for targeted therapy. But one aspect researchers are working to overcome is drug resistance. In some cases the new drugs stop working when the body learns to circumvent them. Now studies are focusing on using multiple drugs - and creating personalized treatment plans.

“By sort of changing the mix of drugs from time to time to help control its growth, you can keep it suppressed and have the patients go on and live a more normal live span. So I think we’re getting much closer to that for many cancers,” says Dr. Hart.

Targeted therapy is in trials for head and neck cancers, along with melanoma, breast, colon, and lung cancers. Using a multi-drug approach, experts believe we’re closing in on managing, if not curing, cancers.