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Research in chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It is used to treat many types of cancer. Chemotherapyis usually a systemic therapy. This means that the drugs travel through the blood to reach cancer cells all over the body.

Researchers are always looking for ways to improve chemotherapy treatment. They are developing new drugs and trying new combinations of existing drugs to find the best combinations. They are also looking for ways to make the drugs easier to take or more convenient. For example, researchers have developed drugs in oral form (as pills) that used to be given through a needle in a vein (intravenously).

Drugs to overcome drug resistance

Some tumours can develop resistance to chemotherapy. This means the drugs won’t work as well as they did at first. One example of how tumours do this is by pumping chemotherapy drugs out of the cancer cells. If researchers can find out how to stop the pumps inside of cancer cells, chemotherapy may stay in the cancer cells longer and work better.

Improving schedules and doses

Researchers are looking for ways to make the drugs work better and with fewer side effects. Examples of this research include:

  • trying to find out if smaller amounts of drugs can be given over longer periods of time (called metronomic chemotherapy)
  • seeing if patients can take breaks from chemotherapy (called treatment or drug holidays) without affecting how well the treatment works
  • reducing the time between doses of chemotherapy (called dose-dense chemotherapy) and studying very high doses (called high-dose chemotherapy) to see if they work better to treat cancers that don’t respond to standard doses

Improving timing and order (sequence)

Chemotherapy is often used along with other treatments to treat cancers. It can be used before surgery (called neoadjuvant or induction chemotherapy) to shrink a tumour, and it can be used after surgery (called adjuvant chemotherapy) to reduce the risk of cancer coming back (recurring). Researchers are trying to find the most effective timing and order of chemotherapy when used with other treatments.

Finding the most effective combinations of drugs

Using different types of chemotherapy drugs together is often more effective than using a single drug. It can also prevent drug resistance to certain chemotherapy drugs. Researchers are always looking at different combinations of drugs to find the most effective and safest way to treat different types of cancer. This includes combining chemotherapy with other types of drug therapy such as immunotherapy, targeted therapy and hormonal therapy.

Combining chemotherapy and radiation therapy

Researchers continue to study chemotherapy given during the same time period as radiation therapy to treat many types of cancer. This is called chemoradiation. Some research is looking at different chemotherapy drugs or combinations of drugs given with radiation therapy. Other research is trying to find out if chemoradiation is an effective way to treat certain types of cancer that haven’t been treated this way before.

Nanotechnology to deliver chemotherapy

Researchers are using nanotechnology to deliver chemotherapy drugs. Nanotechnology is a branch of technology done on a very small scale in the measurement of nanometres. Atoms, molecules and other tiny particles are measured in nanometres.

Tiny particles (called nanoparticles) can be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to the tumour. Researchers are testing nanotechnology to deliver chemotherapy in a couple of ways:

  • Since blood vessels inside of cancerous tumours are leaky, they allow the nanoparticles to easily pass into the tumour where they build up and deliver the chemotherapy drugs. This approach helps reduce side effects because the particles don’t pass easily through blood vessels in healthy tissues of the body.
  • Some nanoparticles can bind directly to cancer cells by targeting certain receptors (molecules) found on their surface. The nanoparticle carrying the chemotherapy drugs can then be absorbed by the cancer cell.

We need more research to be sure, but chemotherapy using nanotechnology seems to have several advantages over standard chemotherapy. Nanotechnology:

  • helps prevent chemotherapy drugs from breaking down before they reach cancer cells
  • allows the drugs to get better or more easily absorbed into cancer cells so tumours get smaller and smaller more quickly
  • allows doctors to use higher doses of chemotherapy drugs but with fewer side effects because healthy cells don’t get as damaged