Controlling cancer ‘may be more effective than trying to kill it’

Frequent, low-dose chemotherapy may be more effective than treatment that aims to eradicate cancer cells completely, according to a study published in Science Translational Medicine.

Researchers from the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston say that a low-dose alternative (which aims to keep tumour growth under control) could be more effective than the current high-dose standard.

Expert verdict
What hits you immediately about this story is the controversial suggestion that we should consider not trying to cure cancer. Read further and it is certainly an intriguing concept. However, at this stage it is little more than that, with the scientific studies mentioned being carried out on mice. A lot of further research is needed, which may be limited by ethical implications.
Research score: 2/5

As well as being ineffective in many cases, high-dose chemotherapy can have debilitating side effects including nausea, fatigue, anaemia and osteoporosis.

The treatment is ‘evolution-based’, which means that the dose is altered based on the response of the tumour. High-dose chemotherapy may destroy all but the drug-resistant cancer cells. The low-dose therapy, rather than trying to eradicate tumours completely, aims to stabilise them by maintaining a small population of drug-sensitive tumour cells to suppress the growth of resistant cells.

The researchers say that the standard method of chemotherapy allows drug-resistant cells to ‘take over and drive tumour growth uncontrolled’.

The approach was tested using the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel in mice with two different types of cancer. Standard chemotherapy shrunk the tumours, but they grew back when treatment stopped. They found that adaptive therapy was more effective in controlling tumour growth. They say that between 60 and 80 per cent of the mice treated in this way were weaned off the drug completely without relapsing.