Top 10 Stories of 2018, Cancer Research Edition


December wouldn’t be complete without a recap of the year’s most important scientific advances in cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering scientists published hundreds of studies this past year and weighed in as experts on many others. Below are some of the year’s highlights.


1. CAR T Cells to the Finish Line

In January, we learned the final results of the longest-running CAR T cell study for people with cancer. Led by MSK medical oncologist Jae Park, the study found that adults with relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia who had a minimal amount of disease at the time of CAR therapy lived significantly longer and had fewer side effects than those who had more substantial disease. About 50% of people in the low-disease category were still alive five years after CAR therapy. 

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2. First Tissue-Agnostic Drug 

The US Food and Drug Administration approved larotrectinib (Vitrakvi®) as a treatment for people with a particular genetic abnormality called a TRK fusion. This is the first time that a targeted drug was approved on the basis of a genetic mutation rather than where the cancer originated. MSK’s David Hyman, Alexander Drilon, and Neerav Shukla played key roles in the drug’s testing.

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3. New Hope for Brain Tumors

A drug delivery method called convection-enhanced delivery was deemed safe for children with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma. The technique relies on the extended release of medication (over 12 hours) directly into the brain through a tube, bypassing the blood-brain barrier. Mark Souweidane, a pediatric neurosurgeon at MSK and Weill Cornell Medicine, led a phase I study.

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4. Sparing Women Unnecessary Chemotherapy

Women with intermediate-risk estrogen receptor–positive breast cancer learned that they could safely avoid having the chemotherapy that’s typically used to prevent the cancer from coming back. A large study, led by researchers at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, provided clear evidence that women with intermediate-risk cancer did equally well with hormonal therapy alone. MSK’s Larry Norton weighed in on the implications of the study.

Some Women with Early Breast Cancer May Not Need Chemotherapy, Study Says
The findings will change how women with intermediate-risk breast cancer are treated.
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5. Poop Therapy

MSK researchers showed that a fecal transplant can restore the health-promoting bacteria that are lost during a bone marrow transplant (BMT). The results pave the way for treatments that protect against the dangerous complications of a BMT that result from a damaged gut microbiota.

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6. The Skinny on Fat

The relationship between body fat and cancer risk became better defined this year. MSK medical oncologist Neil Iyengar and colleagues published a paper in JAMA Oncology showing that postmenopausal women with a normal body mass index (BMI) but a high level of body fat had twice of the risk of developing breast cancer than those with a low level of body fat. The results call into question the use of BMI as a way to determine a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

Richard White, an MSK melanoma specialist and researcher, found that the fat in adipose tissue provides rich fuel for melanoma cells. The fat makes the cancer more aggressive and more likely to spread — at least in zebrafish.

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7. A New Organelle

SKI’s Weirui Ma and Christine Mayr delighted cell biologists this year with their discovery of a new organelle involved in protein sorting. They call it the TIGER domain. 

This Newly Discovered Organelle Is Fierce
It’s not every day that scientists discover a new part of the cell. Two biologists from the Sloan Kettering Institute just did.
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8. The Perks of Genetic Instability

Samuel Bakhoum, a radiation oncologist at MSK, and his colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine discovered that cancer cells’ genetic instability helps them mimic immune cells to avoid destruction. These “escape artists” pull a fast one on the body’s defenses so they can spread to other locations.

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9. 45,000 Cells — One at a Time

SKI computational biologist Dana Pe’er and immunologist Alexander Rudensky tag-teamed on a massive study, published in Cell, that identified the gene expression patterns of more than 45,000 individual immune cells in breast tumors. They used a method called single-cell ribonucleic acid sequencing. The findings set the stage for more individualized treatments.

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10. A Nobel Prize!

Immunologist James Allison won a Nobel prize for his discovery of checkpoint blockade as a treatment for cancer. Dr. Allison was Chair of the Immunology Program at SKI from 2004 to 2011. During his tenure, he worked with researchers at MSK to shepherd that drug, now called ipilimumab (Yervoy®), through testing and ultimately to the FDA’s approval.

Former MSK Immunologist James Allison Wins Nobel Prize in Medicine
Dr. Allison is being honored for discovering how to take the brakes off cancer-fighting immune cells.
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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

I noticed that there wasn’t any mention of ovarian cancer. Is there any hope for a cure?

Dear Angela, ovarian cancer is an important focus of research at MSK. We currently have 26 clinical trials that are open and enrolling patients. We also have many researchers who are studying it in the lab. Thank you for your comment.

Have there been any advances in treating leiomyosarcoma which took my wife’s life 5 years ago?

Dear Edward, we are very sorry for your loss. MSK researchers are working on new treatments for leiomyosarcoma, including targeted therapies. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

I am 14 year survivor of UPS Sarcoma. I have to thank Dr Edward Athanasian and Staff for keeping his eyes on me every 3-6 months.
MSK is truly the best!

Dear Barbara, thank you for your comment. We will share your message with Dr. Athanasian. Best wishes to you.

very good these programs, and best of all good in many ways.. thank you so much..

I have been diagnosed 4 1/2 years ago with stage 4 lung cancer ALK+ and have been taking XALKORI. Are there any new drugs to treat NSCLC ALK+?

Dear Dominick, we’re sorry to hear about your diagnosis. MSK has a number of trials for new drugs targeting ALK. You can view a list here:…

If you are interested in coming here for a consultation, the number to call is 800-525-2225. You can go to for more information on making an appointment. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you.

My son (23) recently (December) was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. Two brain surgeries later and chemo and radiation have begun. Temador is being used for Chemo.. any new drugs or therapies on the horizon?

Dear Susan, we are very sorry to hear about your son’s diagnosis. MSK has a number of clinical trials for glioblastoma. You can view a list here:…

If he would like to come to MSK for a consultation, the number to call is 800-525-2225. You can go to for more information on making an appointment. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to both of you.

Have there been any advances made is treating pancreatic cancer? Any new advances with detecting it earlier?

Dear Drs., My husband was dx with stage 4 prostate cancer almost 2 years ago. It has spread to every bone, did chemo, which worked well. Then Zytiga, which worked for a period of time, but seems to be idle, as his psa rose. It’s no where else in his body, no organs, thank God. He is having pain in pelvis and spine. More activity. He is a patient at Sloan Kettering in Rockville Centre NY,, They want us to make a decision to try a clinical research drug,,,Niraparib with the combination of JNJ-63723283... We are anxious with side affects. Could you please advise as to your option? Or are there other options? Thank you so much for your answer,, He sees dr. In 2 weeks with decision.Sincerely, Ann Flynn

Dear Ann, this is something you and your husband should discuss with his healthcare team at MSK. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to both of you.

I’ve been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer that metastized to the bones. Is XGIVA vaccine effective in healing the bones? Would radiation be a better choice? Thank you for your time

Has MSKCC studied the correlation between Vietnam Veterans and Cholangiocarcinoma as a result of dioxin in Agent Orange or the parasite known as a liver fluke. The incidence in Vietnam Vets is growing rapidly and we are fighting to have this disease placed on the presumptive list.

Dear Patricia, we sent your comment to James Harding, one of our liver cancer experts, who responded: “Cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer, is a rare disease but we are seeing an increase in incidence this cancer in the United States. Given the rarity of the disease, it is difficult to define all the risk factors for the disease. Proposed and known risk factors include smoking, alcohol use, obesity, infections (such as viral hepatitis and biliary parasites), congenital bile duct cysts, and some autoimmune conditions like ulcerative collitis. We at MSK have focused on defining new therapies for these cancer through cutting-edge techniques such as surgery, interventional radiology, and radiation oncology, as well as the investigation of a number of novel medicines. Other groups are looking into what risk factors are associated with the disease.” Thank you for your comment.

I am an 11 year survivor of synovial sarcoma thanks to Dr Edward Athanasian. He is the best and so is his nurse Roe. He was so kind and truly cared about me. I will forever be thankful to him for watching over me for 10 years to make sure I was okay!!

Dear Michele, we’re glad to hear you’re doing well. Thank you for your kind words, and best wishes to you.

This article on the progressive research and new therapeutic treatments embodies your tag line, "More science, less fear". Keep up the outstanding work!

I am starting EMDA/BCG treatments for bladder cancer this week. I understand this is the best treatment currently available. Are there any new treatments I should be aware of? The goal is to save the bladder. Thank you, Les H.

Thanks to MSK. I had reconstructed bladder surgery (neo-bladder) by Dr. Russo & his team in May 2003. Thanks to them and MSK, I 've been able to enjoy the past 15 yrs 8 months of my life and live a normal life. Dr, Russo told me when we first met that he gauged his practice by the number of bladders he saved. not by the ones he removed. Thanks to him, I have a new bladder. Is he still at MSK?

Dear John, thank you for your comment and your kind words. Dr. Russo is still at MSK, and we will forward your message to him. Best wishes to you.

The work going on at MSKCC is truly amazing! God Bless all the researchers and physicians for your incredible efforts. You are super heroes. I pray for all of you and of course for all the patients and their families hoping for cures.

My husband has recently been diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer. He is receiving chemo and radiation and will be having surgery for removal. How experienced are the staff and Drs at Sloan for this type of cancer. We need to decide on a hospital and physician to perform this surgery very soon.
Thank you

Dear Shirley, we’re very sorry to hear about your husband’s diagnosis. Our team of experts in esophageal cancer is made up of gastroenterologists, medical oncologists, surgeons, pathologists, and nurses with decades of collective experience in caring for people with this cancer. You can make an appointment online or call 800-525-2225 for more information. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to both of you.