Why Do Cancer Treatments Fail? – A Look at the Causes

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When a patient with cancer receives treatment, the hope is that it will help eliminate or shrink the tumor so that it can no longer spread. But sometimes treatments fail — which is why so many more people are diagnosed with cancer than we actually have access to treatment for it. Cancer treatments often fail for different reasons, but one common thread is the fact that they’re all designed to attack only one specific aspect of a patient’s disease. And when one target isn’t effective, chances are high that others won’t be much better either. In this article, we look at the top 3 reasons why most cancer treatments fail and potential solutions that could help them be more successful in the future.

Cancer Stem Cell Reproduction Is the Cause in Almost All Cases

When cancer stem cells reproduce at an abnormally high rate, they can cause the tumor to grow and spread. It’s thought that stem cells are responsible for making the cancerous cells that are most resistant to treatment, while other types of cells are more susceptible to it. For this reason, many researchers are turning to new stem cell-targeting therapies that aim to prevent these cells from multiplying. While there’s still a lot of work to be done before such treatments can be approved for human use, early trials suggest that they can be quite effective. In one study published in The Lancet Oncology, for example, researchers treated just under 1,600 cancer patients with a stem cell-targeting drug called nimotuzumab. And after three years, only a single patient had developed a new cancer.

Cancer Targeted Therapy Doesn’t Work

In some cases, cancer treatments don’t work because they’re designed to attack a certain type of cancer. But when that disease recurs in the same tissue (or in a related tissue), the treatment is likely to be ineffective. This often happens when a patient’s cancer is resistant to the targeted therapy. In this case, even though the therapy was designed to target cancer cells, it ends up attacking normal cells as well. Researchers have tried to solve this problem by developing targeted therapies against proteins that are only found in certain types of cancer cells. But these are also ineffective when a patient’s cancer is resistant to them.

DNA Repair Tools Fail to Target a Specific Cancer Gene

Cancer treatments often work by targeting specific genes inside a tumor cell. And when this happens, it’s likely that the cancer will relapse soon after treatment. To avoid this, experts recommend using DNA repair tools that aim to repair any damage done to the tumor’s DNA caused by radiation or chemotherapy. But these tools often fail in cancer patients who have a genetic mutation that prevents them from repairing their DNA. This often happens when a patient’s tumor has a copy of the mutation that’s resistant to treatment, as well. This issue is being addressed through new genetic therapies that directly target these mutations. Early results have shown that they can be very effective.

The Immune System is Unable to Kill Tumor Cells

When cancer cells are targeted by the immune system, it’s expected that the body will attack and kill them. But when certain immune cells are unable to do this, cancer treatments often end up being ineffective. This problem can occur when the immune system isn’t strong enough to kill the tumor, or when it attacks normal tissue instead of the tumor. Researchers are working to solve this problem through several methods. One approach is to give the immune system more tools to help it detect and kill tumor cells. Another is to develop drugs that can be safely given by a pill instead of an intravenous drip. This would allow patients to have an immune response while still receiving chemotherapy.


Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, as well as many other parts of the world. While it’s difficult to know exactly how many people die of the disease, it’s estimated that there are around 2.6 million new cases of cancer each year. Unfortunately, more than half of these cases are likely to end in death, due to the lack of effective treatments. Fortunately, experts are close to developing effective treatments for a number of difficult-to-beat cancers. In fact, new therapies are approved for use in more than a dozen different cancer types each year. While many of these drugs are effective, though, they often don’t work for a number of reasons. Researchers are working to address these issues, though, by better understanding the causes of treatment failure.

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