Testing for Tumor Mutations: Liquid Biopsy Versus Traditional Biopsy


Liquid biopsies, virtually unknown even a year or two ago, are becoming common tools in precision diagnostics for cancer. Here, I will try to explain some of the more important differences between liquid and “traditional” tumor biopsies.

Biopsies of solid tumors (e.g., lung, breast, or brain tumors) involve surgically removing a small part of a tumor and sending it to pathology lab. In the last few years, doctors have also started to send some tumor samples to special service labs that analyze tumor DNA for the presence of cancer-related mutations.

By definition, regular biopsies can be intrusive and are sometimes associated with side effects, such as bleeding or infection. However, they provide some really essential information; i.e., the histology and grade of the tumor and other tumor characteristics necessary to determine the best choice of treatment. For lung cancer, for example, a biopsy determines the type of tumor—adenocarcinoma, squamous cancer, small-cell lung cancer, or another, less common type. For breast cancer, a routine test will determine if the tumor expresses estrogen, progesterone receptors, and a protein called HER2. These tests are critically important in guiding treatment choices. If mutational analysis of cancer-related genes is also performed (which doesn’t always happen, unfortunately), it may guide treatment with targeted drugs. Continue reading…


Clinical Trial Versus Standard Protocol: Why and How to Enroll in a Trial


My job at Cancer Commons is to help cancer patients better understand and make decisions about their treatment. Through our Ask Cancer Commons service, I also strive to inform patients about new drugs in trials that they can discuss with their oncologists. Sometimes, I explain the rationale behind a patient’s current or upcoming treatment, and sometimes I try to convince patients to actually get treated, rather than hope that a vegetarian diet and herbal supplements will cure their metastatic disease. Continue reading…


New Treatments for Gastrointestinal Neuroendocrine Tumors


Neuroendocrine tumors of the digestive system (GI-NETs) can arise in different parts of the digestive tract. GI-NETs originating in the ileum, duodenum, and appendix are known as midgut NETs, and tumors of the stomach, colon, and rectum are non-midgut NETs. Many of these tumors are functional; that is, they produce a variety of hormonal substances that cause serious, debilitating symptoms. Continue reading…


Super Patient: Diane Milne Gives Other Cancer Patients the Tools that Helped Her Survive


June 14, 2014 started out like any other day for Diane Milne. But then, just before the two-hour Zumba exercise class she took almost every morning, she suddenly couldn’t breathe. “I had an overwhelming sense of doom,” recalls Diane, a 68-year-old retired nurse. “I was home alone and I thought I was going to die.” Continue reading…


Cancer Stem Cells and How to Get Rid of Them


If you have not yet heard of cancer stem cells (CSCs), often considered to be the real culprits in cancer, it is about time you do. CSCs are stem cells found in tumors. Drugs that target them are showing promise in clinical trials. More on that later; first, let’s introduce the concept of stem cells:

All normal tissues in our bodies develop from a small number of very special cells known as stem cells. Stem cells can divide a seemingly unlimited number of times. Continue reading…


Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors: A Lesser Threat than Adenocarcinomas, but Still Hard to Treat


Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (PNETs) constitute only about 3% to 5% of all pancreatic cancers. Compared to the most common pancreatic cancer—adenocarcinoma (aka exocrine tumors), PNETs have a longer disease course and better prognosis; the 5-year survival rate is 42% for PNETs, but only about 5% to 6% for adenocarcinomas. When PNETs are localized, they can usually be removed by surgery. However, PNETs tend to metastasize, most often to the liver, and present a formidable treatment challenge at this stage. Continue reading…


Lung NETs and Their Treatment


Cancers that arise in the lung are mostly of the type known as NSCLC (non-small cell lung carcinoma). A much smaller proportion of lung tumors arise from neuroendocrine cells in the lungs. These cells (which are also found in most other organs) secrete a variety of hormones that are necessary for normal organ function, as well as for healing after injury or infection. Like other lung cells, neuroendocrine cells may transform to become cancers. Lung cancers that arise from neuroendocrine cells are called pulmonary neuroendocrine tumors (NETs), or lung NETs. Continue reading…


The CAR T-Cell Treatment: Will It Work for Solid Tumors?


Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a new, immune system-based cancer treatment that has garnered recent media attention. In a clinical trial, CAR T-cell treatment left no signs of tumors in 70% to 90% of children and adults with the aggressive blood cancer acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). ALL is almost always fatal, and the results observed with CAR T-cell treatment are nothing short of spectacular. Continue reading…


Hormone-Mimicking Drugs Are Used To Treat Gastroenteropancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors (GEP-NETs)


Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs) can arise wherever neuroendocrine (hormone-producing) cells are found—which is in most organs. Most NETs (65%-70%) are gastroenteropancreatic, or GEP, arising in different gastrointestinal organs. GEP-NETs are most commonly found in the small bowel (including the appendix), stomach, and rectum. Still, NETs in general are rare, which complicates the development of new treatments and identification of the genetic drivers of these cancers. Treatment of GEP-NETs is clearly an unmet medical need, and is now even more urgent because their incidence has been on the rise in the last 20 years. Continue reading…