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Innovations in Oncology Q3 2022

New and better treatment combinations to help defeat cancer

iStock / Getty Images Plus / fizkes

Professor Udai Banerji

Deputy Director of Drug Development, The Institute of Cancer Research, London

Scientists have made progress in discovering new targeted treatments for cancer, helping patients live longer and manage better. New research focuses on unlocking new combinations to outsmart cancer.

There is no ‘silver bullet’ to cure cancer. Most cancer patients are treated with combination therapies — treatments that combine two or more drugs or different types of therapy, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

We are entering a new era of combination therapies, using molecules targeting cancer tissue. Combining these targeted agents requires an understanding of the biology of cancer and can lead to more treatment options apart from chemotherapy.

Benefits of combination treatments

By combining treatments — either at the same time or in a certain sequence — researchers can target several different weaknesses within tumours, potentially making treatment more effective and tackling drug resistance.

This can involve treating patients with several drugs that work by different molecular mechanisms or re-sensitising a cancer type to an original treatment by giving the patient another therapy.

Identifying combinations likely to work

Scientists aim to find whether the effects of different combinations of drugs are ‘synergistic.’ This ‘synergy’ occurs when the drugs are working harmoniously to produce an enhanced effect when combined.

We are entering a new era of combination therapies, using molecules targeting cancer tissue.

In the past, scientists developed new combination therapies by experimenting — relying on trial and error. If one drug worked well in a certain cancer type and another drug was also effective, then they might explore whether they could work better together.

Taking advantage of AI

Over the last decade, the rise of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) helped scientists develop smarter and more targeted combination therapies — leading to new potential combinations that humans may not be able to spot.

AI tools could save years of development time. At the ICR, we are currently developing a test that uses AI to predict which combinations of drugs are likely to work for lung cancer patients in less than two days. The test analyses large-scale protein data from tumour samples and may predict patients’ responses to drugs more accurately than currently possible.

The future of cancer treatment

The next generation of combination therapies is likely to combine new targeted drugs or new immunotherapies with themselves or other types of treatment to improve efficacy. For example, we already know that combining radiotherapy with immunotherapy could make it harder for cancer cells to remain resistant to radiotherapy.

By providing more personalised strategies, combination treatments will play an increasingly important role and could improve many patients’ quality of life in years to come.

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