• Cancer is one of the world’s biggest killers, leading to 10 million deaths in 2020.
  • But scientists are using artificial intelligence, DNA sequencing, precision oncology and other technologies to improve treatment and diagnosis of the disease.
  • Breakthroughs include the DNA sequencing of more than 12,000 cancer tumours and a new test for diagnosing pancreatic cancer – one of the deadliest cancers.

Cancer killed nearly 10 million people in 2020 and is a leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization.

Breast cancer, lung cancer and colon cancer are among the most common cancers.

Death rates from cancer were falling before the pandemic. Now COVID-19 has caused a big backlog in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

But medical advances are continuing to help the world fight cancer. Here are some recent developments.

Precision oncology

Precision oncology is the “best new weapon to defeat cancer”, the chief executive of Genetron Health, Sizhen Wang, says in a blog for the World Economic Forum. This involves studying the genetic makeup and molecular characteristics of cancer tumours in individual patients. The precision oncology approach identifies changes in cells that might be causing the cancer to grow and spread. Personalized treatments can then be developed. Because precision oncology treatments are targeted – as opposed to general treatments like chemotherapy – it can mean less harm to healthy cells and fewer side effects as a result.

Artificial intelligence fights cancer

In India, World Economic Forum partners are using emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to transform cancer care. For example, AI-based risk profiling can help to screen for common cancers like breast cancer, leading to early diagnosis. AI technology can also be used to analyze X-rays to identify cancers, in places where imaging experts might not be available. These are two of 18 cancer interventions that The Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution of the World Economic Forum India hopes to accelerate.

Infographic of sequenced DNA of cancer tumours.
Scientists at Cambridge University Hospitals have sequenced the DNA of more than 12,000 cancer tumours to reveal new clues about the disease.
Image: Science/Cambridge University Hospitals

Clues in the DNA of cancer

At Cambridge University Hospitals in England, the DNA of cancer tumours from 12,000 patients is revealing new clues about the causes of cancer, scientists say. By analyzing genomic data, oncologists are identifying different mutations that have contributed to each person’s cancer. For example, exposure to smoking or UV light, or internal malfunctions in cells. These are like “fingerprints in a crime scene”, the scientists say – and more of them are being found. “We uncovered 58 new mutational signatures and broadened our knowledge of cancer,” says study author Dr Andrea Degasperi, from Cambridge’s Department of Oncology.

Liquid and synthetic biopsies

Biopsies are the main way doctors diagnose cancer – but the process is invasive and involves removing a section of tissue from the body, sometimes surgically, so it can be examined in a laboratory. Liquid biopsies are an easier and less invasive solution where blood samples can be tested for signs of cancer. Synthetic biopsies are another innovation that can force cancer cells to reveal themselves during the earliest stages of the disease.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

CAR-T-cell therapy

A treatment that makes immune cells hunt down and kill cancer cells was recently declared a success for leukaemia patients. The treatment, called CAR-T-cell therapy, involves removing and genetically altering immune cells, called T cells, from cancer patients. The altered cells then produce proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These recognize and can destroy cancer cells. In the journal Nature, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania announced that two of the first people treated with CAR-T-cell therapy were still in remission 12 years on.

Fighting pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. It is rarely diagnosed before it starts to spread and has a survival rate of less than 5% over five years. At the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, scientists have developed a test that was able to identify 95% of early pancreatic cancers in a study. The research, published in Nature Communications Medicine, explains how biomarkers in extracellular vesicles – particles that regulate communication between cells – were used to detect pancreatic, ovarian and bladder cancer at stages I and II.