Notable News – April 2020

The novel coronavirus continues to dominate the news and affect just about everyone, but it’s not the only news this month. There’s a newly approved drug to treat breast cancer, some pretty cool bacteria in your gut, and a potential way to turn off cancer. We’ll get to all the good stuff but, we can’t ignore the coronavirus because it’s changing the way we treat cancer, so let’s start there.

While there is some evidence that our social distancing efforts are helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus that has plagued the globe for the better part of 2020, the threat of Covid-19 is still very real, and it is affecting how cancer patients are being treated, reports fredhutch.org. Many patients are finding that their treatments are being delayed, rescheduled, or put off altogether. The idea is to protect cancer patients, who are at higher risk for complications from Covid-19, from contracting the virus. That means keeping them out of emergency rooms and treatments centers. In addition, medical resources such as ventilators, masks, and gowns, and even time in the operating room, are in short supply so patients with less aggressive cancers may find that their surgeries are being delayed in order to lessen the burden on the supply. For many patients, the delay or change in treatment is safe, but for some patients, a delay in treatment could decrease their survival rate. Determining how to treat cancer patients during this global pandemic is difficult for doctors because the risks and the stakes are so high. Fortunately, adjustments are being made to cancer treatment guidelines so patients can continue to be safely treated. Wider usage of telehealth and drugs that can boost white blood cell counts during chemo, and screening patients for symptoms before allowing them into treatment centers are among the new procedures. Learn more about how Covid-19 is affecting how cancer is being treated here.

Another result of Covid-19 is the early release of a drug to treat breast cancers. This month, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug Tukysa, or tucatinib, to be used in combination with chemotherapy to fight aggressive forms of breast cancer, reports geekwire.com. “We recognize that patients with cancer constitute a vulnerable population at risk of contracting the coronavirus disease,” Richard Pazdur, M.D., director of the FDA’s Oncology Center of Excellence and acting director of the Office of Oncologic Diseases in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, stated in a news release from the FDA. “In this critical time, we remain steadfast in our commitment to patients with cancer and doing everything we can to expedite oncology product development. Tukysa was approved four months prior to the FDA goal date, providing an example of this commitment and showing how our regular work in reviewing treatments for patients with cancer is moving forward without delay.” The drug will be used to treat adult patients with HER2 positive breast cancer that cannot be surgically removed and that has metastasized. HER2 positive breast cancer metastasizes to the brain in more than 25 percent of patients. Tucatinib targets the HER2 receptor and is taken as a daily pill. The drug costs an average of $111,000 per patient. More information can be found here and you can read the FDA’s news release about tucatinib here.

Thinking about the coronavirus might have everyone feeling a little bit queasy, but this news about gut bacteria might make you feel better. The communities of bacteria that live in your gut, the gut microbiota, might help treat cancer, says medicalnewstoday.com. A new study has shown that certain gut bacteria called Bifidobacterium can get inside tumors in the gut, activate the immune system, and improve the effectiveness of a cancer treating immunotherapy called CD47 blockade immunotherapy. The study performed on mice showed that the treatment worked better for mice with high levels of Bifidobacterium than it did for the mice without. This research could provide insight into why some patients respond better to immunotherapy than others and could lead to more effective immunotherapy treatments. Find more information about the study here.

We may all be wishing for an off switch for the coronavirus right now, but there may actually be one for cancer. Researchers have found a specific site where they can potentially stop the growth of many types of cancer, reports medicalxpress.com. For some time, scientists have known about molecules that interact with tumor suppressor proteins, called PP2A. The PP2A proteins act as an off switch for cancer and stop its growth. However, scientists didn’t know where the molecules interacted with the PP2A proteins, so they couldn’t use the information to make cancer-treating drugs. Using cryo-electron microscopy to get 3D images of where the molecule is bound to the PP2A proteins they could see how the different parts of the protein were brought together. The new information is a step toward developing drugs that could activate these tumor suppressor proteins. PP2A proteins may also be helpful in treating cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases like heart failure and Alzheimer’s. Get more information here.

Hopefully, the coronavirus off switch will be developed soon, but in the meantime, stay safe and stay tuned next month for more Notable News.