What’s new in bladder cancer research and treatment?
Important research into bladder cancer is being done right now in many university hospitals, medical centers, and other institutions around the world.
Understanding genetic changes in bladder cancer
Scientists have made great progress in learning about the differences between normal cells and bladder cancer cells. They are also finding out how these differences make cells grow too much and spread to other parts of the body.
Several changes in the DNA (genetic material) of bladder cancer cells have been found. Researchers are now trying to determine if tests that identify these DNA changes can help predict the prognosis (outlook) of bladder cancer patients (which might affect treatment) or if they are useful in finding bladder cancers that recur (come back) after treatment.
Researchers also hope to use this knowledge to develop new ways to treat bladder cancer.
Urine tests to look for bladder cancer
Several newer tests look for substances in the urine that might help show if a person has bladder cancer. These tests are used mainly to help diagnose bladder cancer or to look for recurrence in people who have already been treated. Researchers are now looking to see if these tests might be helpful even earlier, to screen for bladder cancer in people without symptoms (see “Can bladder cancer be found early?”).
For example, one new test looks for a substance called telomerase in urine. Telomerase is an enzyme that is often found in abnormal amounts in cancer cells. Early results with this test have been promising, and more studies are now under way.
Reducing the risk of bladder cancer coming back
A major concern for people who have had bladder cancer is that they are at risk for developing a new cancer in the bladder or other parts of the urinary tract (including the lining of the kidneys, ureters, and urethra).
Studies are now looking to see if certain foods, vitamins (such as vitamin E), minerals (such as selenium), dietary supplements (such as green tea extract and broccoli sprout extract), chemotherapy drugs, or other drugs can reduce the risk of the cancer coming back or developing a second bladder cancer. Researchers are also looking to see if newer types of vaccines can boost the body’s immune system and help lower the risk of a second cancer.
Bladder cancer treatment
Several newer types of treatment are now being studied for used against bladder cancer.
Some surgeons are using a newer approach to cystectomy in which they sit at a control panel in the operating room and maneuver robotic arms to do the surgery. This approach, known as robotic-assisted surgery, lets the surgeon operate through several small incisions instead of one large one. This may help patients recover more quickly from surgery. This type of surgery is already used to treat some other cancers, such as prostate cancer, but it’s not yet clear if it’s as good as standard surgery for removing the bladder. This approach is being studied to see if this is the case.
Researchers are looking at a number of new medicines to see if putting them into the bladder after surgery can help lower the risk of the cancer coming back. The hope is to find some that are better and/or safer than currently used drugs such as BCG and mitomycin.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a newer treatment method that is now being studied to see if it is useful in treating early stage bladder cancers. A light-sensitive drug is injected into the blood and allowed to collect in the cancer cells for a few days. Then a special type of laser light is focused on the inner lining of the bladder through a cystoscope. The light changes the drug in the cancer cells into a new chemical that can kill them.
The advantage of PDT is that it can kill cancer cells with very little harm to nearby normal cells. One drawback is that the chemical must be activated by light, so only cancers near the surface of the bladder lining can be treated in this way. The light can’t reach cancers that have grown deeper into the bladder wall or have spread to other organs.
The main side effect of PDT is an intense sensitivity to the sun that can last for a few weeks after therapy. Even small amounts of sunlight can cause severe burns in a short time, so it is very important to take precautions while getting this treatment.
You can read more about this kind of treatment in our document Photodynamic Therapy.
As researchers have learned more about some of the changes in bladder cells that cause them to become cancerous, they have begun to develop drugs that target these changes. These new targeted drugs work differently from standard chemo drugs. They may work in some cases when chemo drugs don’t, and they tend to have different (and often less severe) side effects.
Many targeted drugs are already being used to treat other types of cancer. Some of these drugs are now being studied for use against bladder cancer as well, including sunitinib (Sutent®), lapatinib (Tykerb®), erlotinib (Tarceva®), trastuzumab (Herceptin®), and panitumumab (Vectibix®).
Other drugs target the blood vessels that allow tumors to grow. These are known as anti-angiogenesis drugs. Examples include bevacizumab (Avastin®), sorafenib (Nexavar®), cabozantinib (Cometriq®), and pazopanib (Votrient®), which are already used for some other types of cancer. They are now being studied for use against bladder cancer, usually combined with chemotherapy.
Many other new targeted drugs are being studied in clinical trials as well.
Gene therapy – adding or changing the actual genes inside cancer cells or other cells in the body – is another new treatment method being tested for bladder cancer. One of these approaches uses special viruses that have been modified in the lab. The modified virus is put into the bladder and infects the bladder cancer cells. When this infection occurs, the virus injects a gene into the cells for GM-CSF, an immune system hormone (cytokine) that may help immune system cells to attack the cancer. This and other approaches to gene therapy are still in the early stages of development.
Last Medical Review: 02/26/2014
Last Revised: 02/25/2015