Cancer research highlights from 2023

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By Mayo Clinic staff

Researchers at Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center spent 2023 studying the biology of cancer and new ways to predict, prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. Their discoveries are creating hope and transforming the quality of life for people with cancer today and in the future. Here are some highlights from their research over the past year:

Mayo Clinic researchers link ovarian cancer to bacteria colonization in the microbiome.

A specific colonization of microbes in the reproductive tract is commonly found in people with ovarian cancer, according to a study from the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine. Published in Scientific Reports and led by Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic researcher, and Abigail Asangba, Ph.D., the discovery strengthens the evidence that the bacterial component of the microbiome — a community of microorganisms that also consists of viruses, yeasts and fungi — is an important indicator for early detection, diagnosis and prognosis of ovarian cancer. The study also suggests that a higher accumulation of pathogenic microbes plays a role in treatment outcomes and could be a potential indicator for predicting a patient's prognosis and response to therapy. Read more.

Artificial intelligence is forging a new future for colorectal cancer and other digestive system diseases.

Colonoscopy remains the gold standard in detecting and preventing colorectal cancer, but the procedure has limitations. Some studies suggest that more than half of post-colonoscopy colon cancer cases arise from lesions missed at patients' previous colonoscopies. In 2022, Michael Wallace, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist, published the results of an international, multicenter study testing the impact of adding artificial intelligence (AI) to routine colonoscopies. His team, including James East, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist, and other researchers from the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Germany and Ireland, found that incorporating AI into colonoscopies reduced the risk of missing polyps by 50%. Read more.

A big step forward: Bringing DNA sequencing data to routine patient care.

The Tapestry study, an extensive genomic sequencing clinical research study, aims to complete exome sequencing (sequencing the protein-coding regions of a genome) for 100,000 Mayo Clinic patients. The results will be integrated into patients’ electronic health records for three hereditary conditions, and the amassed data will contribute to a research dataset stored within the Mayo Clinic Cloud on the Omics Data Platform. The overall hope of Tapestry is to accelerate discoveries in individualized medicine to tailor prevention, diagnosis and treatment to a patient's unique genetic makeup. It is poised to advance evidence that exome sequencing, when applied to a diverse and comprehensive general population, can proficiently identify carriers of genetic variants that put them at higher risk for a disease, allowing them to take preventive measures. Read more.

Patients with multiple tumors in one breast may not need a mastectomy.

Patients who have multiple tumors in one breast may be able to avoid a mastectomy if surgeons can remove the tumors while leaving enough breast tissue, according to research led by the Alliance in Clinical Trials in Oncology and Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center. Patients would receive breast-conserving therapy — a lumpectomy followed by whole-breast radiation therapy — rather than mastectomy. The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Historically, women with multiple tumors in one breast have been advised to have a mastectomy. Now, patients can be offered a less invasive option with faster recovery, resulting in better patient satisfaction and cosmetic outcomes, says Judy Boughey, M.D., lead author, Mayo Clinic breast surgical oncologist and the W.H. Odell Professor of Individualized Medicine. Read more.

Staging pancreatic cancer early with minimally invasive surgery shows positive results in patient prognosis.

A study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons reveals that performing a minor surgical procedure on patients newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer helps to identify cancer spread early and determine the stage of cancer. The researchers add that the surgery ideally should be performed before the patient begins chemotherapy. "This is an important study because it supports that staging laparoscopy may help determine a patient's prognosis and better inform treatment so that patients avoid unhelpful or potentially harmful surgical therapy," says Mark Truty, M.D., a Mayo Clinic surgical oncologist who led the research. Read more.

Mayo Clinic study reveals proton beam therapy may shorten breast cancer treatment.

In a trial published in The Lancet Oncology, Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center researchers uncovered evidence supporting a shorter treatment time for people with breast cancer. The study compared two separate dosing schedules of pencil-beam scanning proton therapy, known for its precision in targeting cancer cells while preserving healthy tissue to reduce the risk of side effects. The investigators found that both 25-day and 15-day proton therapy schedules resulted in excellent cancer control while sparing surrounding non-cancerous tissue. Further, complication rates were comparable between the two study groups. "We can now consider the option of 15 days of therapy for patients based on the similar treatment outcomes observed," says Robert Mutter, M.D., a Mayo Clinic radiation oncologist and physician-scientist. Read more.

Harnessing the immune system to fight ovarian cancer.

Mayo Clinic research is biomanufacturing an experimental, cell-based ovarian cancer vaccine and combining it with immunotherapy to study a "one-two punch" approach to halting ovarian cancer progression. This research begins with a blood draw from people with advanced ovarian cancer whose tumors have returned after standard surgery and chemotherapy. White blood cells are extracted from the blood, biomanufactured to become dendritic cells and returned to the patient. Dendritic cells act as crusaders that march through the body, triggering the immune system to recognize and fight cancer. "We're building on an earlier phase 1 clinical trial that showed promising results in terms of survival after the dendritic cell-based vaccine," says Matthew Block, M.D., Ph.D., co-principal investigator and Mayo Clinic medical oncologist. "Of the 18 evaluable patients in the phase 1 study, 11 had cancer return, but seven of them — 40% — have been cancer-free for almost 10 years. We typically expect 90% of patients in this condition to have the cancer return." Read more.

New gene markers detect Lynch syndrome-associated colorectal cancer.

Researchers from Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center and Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine have discovered new genetic markers to identify Lynch syndrome-associated colorectal cancer with high accuracy. Studies are underway to determine if these genetic markers are in stool samples and, if so, how this could lead to a non-invasive screening option for people with Lynch syndrome. The research was published in Cancer Prevention Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research. "This is an exciting finding that brings us closer to the reality that clinicians may soon be able to offer a non-invasive cancer screening option to patients with the highest risk of getting cancer," says Jewel Samadder, M.D., co-lead author of the paper and a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist. Read more.

Mayo Clinic prepares to biomanufacture a new CAR-T cell therapy for B-cell blood cancers.

Mayo Clinic research has developed a new type of chimeric antigen receptor-T cell therapy (CAR-T cell therapy) aimed at killing B-cell blood cancers that have returned and are no longer responding to treatment. This pioneering technology, designed and developed in the lab of Hong Qin, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic cancer researcher, killed B-cell tumors grown in the laboratory and tumors implanted in mouse models. The preclinical findings are published in Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy. "This study shows our experimental CAR-T cell therapy targets several blood cancers, specifically chronic lymphocytic leukemia," says Dr. Qin. "Currently, there are six different CAR-T cell therapies approved for treatment of relapsed blood cancers. While the results are impressive, not everyone responds to this treatment. Our goal is to provide novel cell therapies shaped to each patient's individual need." Read more.