The Future of Cancer Research: Five Reasons for Optimism

By Eva Kiesler and Meredith Begley,

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

DNA molecules wrapped around histones

Memorial Sloan Kettering scientists believe there are many reasons to be hopeful about the future of cancer care and research. Here, we take a look at five promising advances that are transforming the way we think about cancer and delivering new treatment tactics.

  • Precision medicine will offer more people customized care based on their genes and history.
  • Two forms of immunotherapy — checkpoint inhibitors and CAR therapy — are harnessing the power of the immune system to fight cancer.
  • New epigenetic drugs could turn cancer cells back to normal instead of destroying them outright.
  • Scientists are learning more about the genes and pathways that drive metastasis, the process by which cancer spreads. 

Although the history of attempts to understand and control cancer is littered with disappointments, many significant advances in research and treatment have been made in recent years. Despite the challenges, Memorial Sloan Kettering scientists and doctors firmly believe we’re on the cusp of a brighter era in cancer care and research. Today, we have more reasons than ever to be hopeful. These are five of them.

Precision Medicine: Interpreting the Story of Genes

During his final State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama announced an initiative focused on precision medicine — the vision that one day, all people will be offered customized care, with treatments that match our genetics and personal histories. Such individualized therapies promise to be more effective and cause fewer side effects than more traditional ones developed for the average patient.

We have yet to realize the full potential of precision medicine, but we are making significant headway. Options for many people with cancer have dramatically improved through targeted therapies that reverse the effects of specific gene mutations in their tumor cells.

MSK scientists are working relentlessly to extend the promise of precision medicine to people with all kinds of cancer, both common and rare. Our pathologists — experts in diagnosing disease — are using a powerful tumor DNA sequencing test called MSK-IMPACT™ to guide therapy for patients with advanced disease, regardless of their tumor type.

In addition, MSK investigators are developing new research approaches and perfecting basket trials — a method of conducting clinical studies in which patients can enroll based on the mutations in their tumors — to help doctors deliver precision-medicine options to more patients, more quickly.

Checkpoint Inhibitors: Triggering Immune Defense

Using a patient’s own immune system to fight his or her cancer, known as immunotherapy, is the fruition of a century-old idea. MSK researchers have played a major role in the development of nivolumab and ipilimumab, two drugs that boost the cancer-fighting powers of the immune system’s T cells. These two drugs belong to a class of immunotherapy treatments called checkpoint inhibitors, which work by easing constraints on the immune system and thus helping it work better. So far both have produced remarkable results, eliminating cancer completely in some patients with highly advanced melanoma. Nivolumab is additionally approved for lung and kidney cancer, and another drug, pembrolizumab, is approved for lung cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors are also showing promise in bladder, head and neck, triple-negative breast, and other cancers.

These therapies don’t yet work in everyone, but scientists are making incredible strides in changing that. Recent MSK research has yielded important clues about how these drugs work and how they could be improved. In addition, MSK was recently named a founding member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which, thanks to a generous $250 million donation from tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, will hasten the study and implementation of new immunotherapy drugs.

Jedd Wolchok, Chief of the Melanoma and Immunotherapeutics Service at MSK, told Reuters that the new center “is paradigm shifting.”

“I have no doubt this will allow us to make progress, and to make it much more quickly,” he said.

Cell-Based Therapy: “Living Drugs” to Better Fight Cancer

In addition to drugs such as ipilimumab and nivolumab, MSK researchers are developing another immunotherapy strategy in which a patient’s own T cells are manipulated to more readily attack cancer cells. In this treatment, called chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR therapy, T cells are collected from a patient’s blood, genetically engineered to recognize certain proteins on cancer cells, and infused back into the patient’s bloodstream.

The approach is showing early promise for relapsed B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and some other blood cancers, and might potentially be useful for treating solid tumors as well.

Karen’s Story
Karen’s own immune system was her most powerful weapon against chronic lymphocytic leukemia. After undergoing a new type of immunotherapy, CAR T cell therapy, she is now cancer-free.
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“We’re creating living drugs,” Michel Sadelain, a pioneer in the field and Director of MSK’s Center for Cell Engineering, told the New York Times about CAR therapy. The concept of these drugs — therapies in which live cells are either infused or transplanted into patients — is exciting because cells are presumably more nimble than chemicals or biological compounds. For example, they can sense multiple cues from their environment and appropriately respond.

For most of these cell-based treatments, scientists are still working to ensure their safety or manage their side effects.

Epigenetic Therapy: Setting Cancer Cells Straight

Doctors have long searched for ways to control cancer by cutting out tumors or poisoning them with chemicals and radiation. But what if cancer could be treated in a different way, by transforming cancer cells back to normal rather than destroying them?

Research into epigenetics — how genes can switch “on” or “off” depending on outside influences — is changing our understanding of cancer and many other diseases. It has also led to the development of a number of new drugs in clinical trials at MSK. All of them target epigenetic enzymes, which regulate a cell’s genetic programming. Rather than destroy cancer cells, the therapies seek to set the cells on a path back toward normal growth and development.

One such drug, called AG-221, is being tested in people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndromes. As of September 2015, the drug had a 38% response rate in 159 patients whose AML had returned and been resistant to treatment. Similar results have been seen with some other new blood cancer drugs.

Research into Metastasis: Unmasking the Latent Enemy

For almost 200 years, scientists have been toiling to understand metastasis, the process that allows some cancer cells to break off from their tumor of origin and take root in a different tissue. Today, the problem is as urgent as ever. Metastasis causes nine out of ten deaths from cancer, and survival rates haven’t improved much since the 1960s.

The process has been challenging to study and control for many reasons. One is that metastatic tumor cells are very rare in the body compared with the millions of tumor cells that don’t cause metastasis, and they’re therefore hard to detect and isolate.

But the tide is finally turning. In recent years, scientists have identified genes and pathways that commonly drive the spread of breast cancer or neuroblastoma to the brain and kidney cancer metastasis to various organs. In 2014, our scientists discovered that metastatic tumor cells have a remarkable tendency to cling to blood vessels, a survival mechanism that might be important for the spread of many types of cancer. Our researchers have also shed light on how cancer cells hide out and remain undetected by our immune system, opening up a promising new avenue for treatment.

Our relationship with cancer will be much more like the one we have with infectious diseases, for which we have antibiotics and other treatments.
Joan Massagué
Joan Massagué Director, Sloan Kettering Institute

Scientists are also finding that tumors can hijack normal cells and tissues growing in their neighborhood and coax them into supporting cancer spread. To counter that, our researchers have discovered that drugs that act on a specific type of blood cell can slow breast-to-brain metastasis or block the progression of glioblastoma brain tumors in mice.

The more we learn about metastasis, the more likely we are to see new treatment options emerge. “Mankind is turning cancer from what we’ve known it to be — the way we’ve related to it in the 20th century as an impossible, obscure disease — into a ‘normalized’ disease,” Joan Massagué, Director of the Sloan Kettering Institute and a prominent metastasis researcher, said in an interview. “Our relationship with it will be much more like the one we have with infectious diseases, for which we have antibiotics and other treatments.”


I didn't see much to be hopeful about in your propaganda piece -same old treating people with more chemicals that have really not been proven to do anything.More money being poured into a system that is the biggest failure in modern history. No one wants to find the cause- and therein lies the cure. No one speaks of cure only treatment-

relation between diabetes 2 and colon cancer and recent treatment

All I know is that if it were not for the TREATMENT that I received at MSKCC, I would not be alive today to respond to your snarky post!
Think positive and find a way to help.

With all the money being pour into this organization they are yet to get cyberknife treatment. Shame on you Memorial Sloan. More money on chemo? oh course, you guys dont want less costly treatments, cure for the disease or prevention greed is your game. GREED.

Thank you for your comment. Memorial Sloan Kettering does use devices that employ the same technology as CyberKnife. The technology is called stereotactic radiosurgery (also known as stereotactic radiotherapy) and CyberKnife is a brand name for one of several available stereotactic radiosurgery devices that are available.

You can learn about this technology here:

To the doubters: I was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago, and I'm still alive against all the odds. It's been rough, but I'm still here. Along the way, my life has been extended by an immunotherapy clinical trial and by stereotactic radiation therapy. Side effects were rough, but I'm convinced the researchers are doing their best to help.... and to find a cure. Jeeze, give them a break.

Having Polycythemia and being on Jakafi, I'm interested in everything being done on behalf of MPN chronic leukemia diseases.

I think this is amazing and commend Sloan for their tireless work in this field. For those who have nothing but snarky comments, you do not have any idea the depth and complexity of this problem. By blankly dismissing current therapies as just money-making schemes, you completely invalidate the life's work of so many brilliant people. Do you really think that everyone that goes into oncology research and treatment is a money hungry evil doer? Well that idea is a complete and utter fallacy. Those who go into this field do so with the most noble cause of wanting to help cure 'the emperor of all maladies' to the human race. If you personally do not believe in the work they do then that is fine and you are free to choose homeopathy to treat your ailments but don't come on here and spout venom to those who devote their life to trying to help others. Thank you Sloan and thank you to all those who tirelessly toil to push the boundaries of cancer treatment further.

I'm currently a stage 4 metastatic colon cancer patient at 40 years old put on hospice by my doctors last year. I started taking immunotherapy, Nivolumab and today... 1 cycle in, my CEA has dropped 109 points and my tumor masses have shrank over 50%. I'm still trying to comprehend this good news!

Dear Cody, thanks for sharing your good news! We are glad to hear it!

How much of this is helping target pediatric cancer, tired of seeing kiddos get the same as adults in smaller quanties, how do our kiddos only get 4%!

Dear Cnahorn, we are doing everything we can to extend the promise of new therapies to children and we have many clinical trials open for pediatric patients. In fact, the majority of our pediatric patients participate in some form of clinical research during their care and, as a result, our pediatric specialists have made some remarkable improvements in the treatment of pediatric cancers over the years.

To learn about some of our ongoing research, go to:


Thank you for your comment.

My wife lost her battle with cancer on April 15th 2003 at Sloan Kettering mostly due to the 2 and 4 stage cancer in her lymphnodes that srread through her body to her liver in just 15 months. Also, partly due to the treatment emphasis on research with reduced patient care. She was put on oxycoten which put her into a comatose state. Her doctor unavailable because it was her month to do research and not be at the hospital. Another doctor took over adding to her patient load and not available for help to my wife. I finally insisted that the oxycoten be stopped after making a major scene. She became lucid again only to be told that it was now too late to do anything further. She died in my arms. Her doctor, now available, quickly came to her room, hugged me and said "What can I do?" to which I answered "Kill this f**king cancer" to which she answered, "I'm trying." I liked this oncologist very much and her surgeon but the empashis on research lessened the care she received. As much as I understand the need for research to find an answer to "kill" cancer I believe nothing is more important than patient care and the connection between doctor and patient. No amount of PR can ever reduce cancer. PR is meant to get money for research and bragging rights neither of which are significant to a patient with terminal cancer. So, I say again, "Kill this f**king cancer," but offer the very best personalized care for patients.

Dear Ron, we are very sorry for your loss and that you had this experience. Thank you for sharing your story.

Thanks to all the doctors, researchers and nurses who are working daily to treat and help their patients. I do agree that some organizations or research universities need to be looking at causes more. Also I would like to see more opportunities for people with late stage cancer to try experimental treatments, whether chemo, cannabis oil or anything else with medical oversight, even without being in a proper scientific trial.

Are the precision medicines and other therapies known to work on Liposarcomas?

Dear Brij, we are researching the use of precision medicine in liposarcoma. Here's our current clinical trial: If you'd like to learn more about how we treat sarcomas such as liposarcoma, you can learn more here:…. And ff you'd like to learn more about coming to MSK for care, please call us at 800-525-2225. If you're outside the United States, you can learn more here: Thanks so much for your question!

My wife was just diagnosed with a high grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the parotid gland. Surgery is done but radiation and some chemo are next. What I would not give for her to not have to go through this treatment. With the advances in cancer research I've read about today, I have to believe a real cure will be available before the next time we hear any more gut wrenching news.

My wife had a lumpectomy to remove a stage 1 invasive cancer of the left breast at Sloan Kettering just over a year ago. Wonderful caring surgeon did a wonderful job in removing the tumor with a lumpectomy, and did such a careful job you can barely tell she had the surgery. She was found to be estrogen positive, hertanu negative. She will be taking an aromatase inhibitor for at least 5 years. The tumor was a little over 1/2 cm in size. her dx oncotype score was 3 out of 100, indicating very low chance of recurrence, and her braca gene test was negative. They removed the sentinal lymph node and the next node and both were negative for cancer. She had breast radiation at sloan and did not need chemo. One year post surgery everything looks great. She had a f/u MRI. However an enhanced spot below the surgery site was found on the MRI that is slightly questionable. They are 98% sure it is not a cancer. Nevertheless, she must come back in 6 months for a f/u MRI. MY wife has very dense cystic breasts, which is one of the reasons for a MRI. She also had a mammagram which proved to be normal.. The radiologist did not suspect cancer given the spot a 3 score. In other words it is a watch site just to be sure. So she has to have a f/u MRI in 6 months. Hopefully they will find nothing. In fact at the present time they did not recommend a biopsy. Questions: Unfortunately, if at at time in the future they find another cancerous tumor in her right breast no matter how small, the only option is a mastectomy, as you can no longer do a second lumpectomy if you previously received radiation in that breast. We are fortunate that things look pretty good for my wife. However, if the next MRI or the one after that finds a recurrence a lumpectomy is no longer an option it would have to be a mastectomy, and removal of all her lymph nodes. Hopefully, there will never be a need for this. What does the research say about less drastic options if they find a small invasive tumor on a f/u visit. Other than the aromatase inhibitor is there anything else that can reduce the likelihood of a recurrence, such as vegan diet, especially eating dark leafy greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, walnuts? My wife has no relatives who had breast cancer. He father did have prostate cancer later in life but did not die from it. Thank you!

Thank you for reaching out and we're pleased to hear that your wife is doing well so far following treatment. Unfortunately, we cannot answer questions about specific medical cases and suggest that you speak with your wife's medical team for treatment options if something is found on a follow-up visit.

Also, here is a link to more information about maintaining a healthy diet and breast cancer. There are now studies showing that diet and lifestyle may play a role in breast cancer and its recurrence:…

Please correct my posting on 04/28/2015 at 1:00 PM. The first sentence is incorrect. Her cancer was in her right breast. Her left breast is normal.

If your institute is serious about finding solution for cancer then you should provide free of cost cancer review services. You have very limited patients. I do not think you could ever provide a solution by working on limited number of rich patients. Hospital next to me is service patients in a week you guys are serving a year.


Thank you for your comment. Memorial Sloan Kettering actually sees a very large number (and wide variety) of patients each year—more than 130,00. Also, we recently launched the MSK Cancer Alliance, an initiative designed to collaboratively guide community providers toward state-of-the-art cancer care:

In addition, MSK does provide financial help to patients in need, as is explained at this link:…

Finally, MSK frequently provides several free screening opportunities for skin cancer and head and neck cancer each year.

Has there been any progress in treating gastric cancer, and specifically HDGC? This disease is so devasting. I lost my grandfather just 2 months after he was diagnosed. I figured there would be some news about gene therapy for CDH1 but I haven't seen anything.

I am a 12 year brain cancer survivor, thanks to stereotactic radiation, and good surgeons, plus photodynamic therapy. I am in remission, and I think cured, though I will never be told that. So I am thankful for all the treatments I have endured, and now work at a children's cancer foundation. Someday there will be a cure, but for now I am glad for the treatments that can at least extend life. Especially for the children.

Thank you for your comment. We are pleased to hear that you are doing well!

Is there any news that applies to BRCA1 mutation carriers ? Are there alternatives to surgery ? Anything new ? Or any new preventative methods that are on the horizon ?

Thank you

Dear Nelle, our experts are always working to learn more about the impact of carrying BRCA mutations and ways to reduce the associated cancer risk. You may be interested in learning more about our progress by visiting the following links:

Twenty Years after BRCA Discovery, Progress in Prevention and Early Detection…

Twenty Year Anniversary of BRCA1…

Inherited Risk for Breast & Ovarian Cancers…

We also currently have a related clinical trial that may be of interest:

Finally, you may be interested in learning more about our screening program for woman at increased risk for breast cancer:…

We hope this information is helpful. Thank you for your question.

Is the idea that cancer cells cling to blood vessels in any way similar to Dr. Judah Folkman's work on antiangiogenesis at Boston Children's Hospital?

Thank you for your question! Judah Folkman is mainly known for his research into angiogenesis, the idea that tumors need the support of blood vessels to grow and thrive. You can read more about angiogenesis on our blog:
The phenomenon we are referring to here is somewhat different in that it focuses on a possible survival strategy used by individual tumor cells that have detached from a tumor and spread to a new organ.

I cannot thank everyone enough for saving my life and giving me and others hope .

Dear Frank, thank you for your kind words. Survivors like you give others hope!

Dear MSK,
I am a mother of a 28 year old son, who was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma(ARMS) in October 2014. He started treatment, radiation and chemotherapy, at the end of October. Just recently his oncologist has told him that she can't cure him. His tumor in his jaw grew larger even while his Dad and I were visiting. Your center was recommended to us. Have you successfully treated other ARMS patients?
A Very Concerned Mom

Dear Very Concerned Mom, we are very sorry to hear about your son's diagnosis. We have successfully treated many children and young adults with this particular type of cancer. There is one story on our website you may be interested in reading:

If you would like to make an appointment for your son to consult with one of our specialists, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-225-2225. Thank you for reaching out to us.

God bless MSK for all that you do. What developments have their been in treating transitional cell carcinoma of the renal pelvis that has spread to the lymph nodes? My mother (62) was recently diagnosed.

Dear Concerned Son, we are sorry to hear about your mother's diagnosis. Our physicians have expertise in kidney-sparing surgery, image-guided ablation, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy for the treatment of people with renal cancer. We also continue to develop newer treatments through our clinical trials. If your mother would like to make an appointment with one of our specialists to discuss her treatment options, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-225-2225. Thank you for reaching out to us.

Myson was diagnosed in 2012 with Diffuse Cell B Lymphoma. He was treated with heavy doses of Methotrexate. Also had treatments of Ritixin every 3 months long with taking Temador monthly. He was remission until April 2015.
The Lymphoma returned in his brain he was diagnosed with a tumor in the corpus callundum in the brain. He again received heavy doses of methatrexate along with Temador. He is back in the hospital due to a high fever. His speech has been affected. Now his Dr. has told him the methatrexate is not working. Which upset my son tremendously. This Dr has NO bedside manner and is not an expert in CNS (Central Nervous System) Lymphona. My son is now 47 years old and has 2 small children. We need to know what are alternative treatments.

We're sorry to hear about your son's recurrence. If he would like to meet with one of our CNS experts for treatment or a second opinion, you can call our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225 or go to for more information. If he is not able to come to New York City, we recommend you look for a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center that is close to where you live. You can find the list at Thank you for your comment.

My mom has been under the care of multiple doctors as she has 3 unrelated types of cancer.4 1l2 years ago mom was diagnosed with colangio carcinoma. The tumor was at the end of her liver, and her surgeon removed it. Exactly a year later, she had a tumor removed from her upper lobe in her lung. 2 years later, a tumor was discovered in her kidney. Her doctor performed cryo ablation,which stopped the blood supply to the tumor.
After reading some of the negative comments about cancer treatments and research, I want to add mine.
I think cancer can be described very much like alcoholism; the growth and spreading of it is cunning and baffling.
I commend the doctors, nurses,research teams, even the people who greet us at the doors every time we go. They are people ; they're not perfect. BUT they are, for the most part, compassionate and diligent.
My mother is alive today because of her choice to go to Sloan, even though the hospital is out of network with her insurance. We are not wealthy people, so she did have to pay SOME out pocket.
Considering what she spent on cigarettes over the years, it was nothing.
After 4 years, mom's liver cancer returned, as her doctor said it might . She has great faith in her doctors and GOD, and her decision to go ahead with chemo, so far, has proved to be a good one.
I feel the answer to eradicating cancer is, research on the part of doctors, and education about healthy lifestyles on our part, as a society.
If I were ever diagnosed with cancer, Sloan-Kettering is the first place I would go for help. Thankyou.

Hi my uncle has been recently diagnosed with colon cancer. It has already metastisized to his liver. Are there any trials going on right now. His only option is chemo and he is supposed to start next week.

We're very sorry to hear about your uncle's diagnosis. We currently have one clinical trial open for people with liver metastases involving an interventional radiology procedure called ablation. You can read more here: And you can learn more about our approach to treating liver metastases here:…. There's also some good information on treating liver metastases in a recent public talk we gave on liver cancer:…. If your uncle would like to learn more about making an appointment with us, he can call 800-525-2225. Thanks so much for reaching out, and we wish you both all the best.

In 2012 my wife was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer stage 111 and she had the lumpectomy.In a pet ct later found that she has cancer in liver,undergone herceptin+pacli then the liver surgery along with the removal of gallbladder.Herceptin continued for 12 cycles along with 4 cycles of anthracyclin.She had radiation therapy also.Started having Tamoxifen.
6 months back found brachial plexopathy and nodules in lungs too.Now she is having Capecitabine and Lapatinib.
As per the latest pet ct on19/06/15 it is worst,she is having problems in cervical,thorax,abdomen and pelvis areas.
Can we come over there for a better treatment?Do you have any kind of resent research and treatment plan for the patients of these stages? Please advise.


My mother had breast cancer 18 years ago and had a lumpectomy and radiation. We didn't hear from it for 14 years. 3 1/2 years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer with metastasis mainly to bones. Has been on different types of chemo. The latest, Abraxane, is working but before we could let out a sigh of relief we received the devastating news that she had leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. She has received radiation to the head, although not the whole head. She has been declining quickly. We are all very worried. We've read about higher doses of Xoleda and also Depocyt with some cases in which response was achieved. Do you have any experience with this type of cancer?

We're sorry to hear about your mother's diagnosis. To learn more about how we treat leptomeningeal metastases, you can go to….

If your mother would like to make an appointment for consultation at MSK, she can call 800-525-2225 or go to for more information. Thank you for your comment.

My father has recently been diagnosed with Stage IV NSCLC. He is ALK positive and has > 15 brain mets (some measurable) though asymptotic at this stage. What is the latest re targeted therapies? Very keen to hear your views on sequencing of radiotherapy of the brain vs systemic treatments. We had one institution recommend whole of brain radiation straight away and another recommend seeing the results of the ALEX clinical trial which has two arms - Crizotinib vs Alectinib (has been brain-blood-penetration results), then seeing whether the brain mets shrink and potentially stereotactic for the larger brain mets. It's all rather confusing being new to all this. Thank you in advance.

Thanks so much for your question. We're very sorry to hear about your father's diagnosis. Because our doctors' recommendations are tailored to the details of each person's diagnosis and medical history, we aren't able to offer specific medical advice on our blog. This also helps us to protect your privacy. If you wish, please do give us a call at 866-MSK-LUNG to find out if we have any clinical trials that might be right for him. You can see the full list here:…. You might also find it helpful to review our information on radiation therapy for brain metastases. which you can find here:…. Thanks so much for reaching out to us, and please let us know if you need anything else.

my wife is under treatment now for stage 3 breast cancer , she is 42 . pls teel me how to prevent reoccurance ? and how effective is her treatment surgery/chemo/radiation. hormonal ?

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