Dubai: Worldwide, 8.2 billion people die of cancer annually and there has been a 70 per cent increase in cancer deaths according to World Health Organisation (WHO). Globally, $80 billion (Dh293.84 billion) is spent on cancer treatments annually.

In the UAE, which is determined to bring down cancer fatalities by nearly 18 per cent by 2021, approximately 4.500 new cases of cancer are reported in a year, which means 12 new cancer cases a day, according to the Abu Dhabi Health Authority.

In the emirate of Abu Dhabi, 1,729 new cases were detected in 2012 alone, with 28 per cent among Emiratis and 72 per cent among expatriate residents. This made cancer the third leading cause of death in Abu Dhabi, accounting for 13 per cent of all fatalities.

The UAE National Health Agenda 2021 has included cancer as one of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess the nation’s health-care goals being on track. The target is to reduce cancer deaths to about 64.2 per 100,000 of the population by 2021.

In over a century of the battle against cancer, the decoding of the human genome has provided oncologists worldwide with a breakthrough as they are now able to identify the genes that go awry and the amino acids that cause cancer.

Dr Mohannad Diab, consultant endocrinologist at NMC Speciality Hospital, Abu Dhabi, listed the top five cancers prevalent in the UAE. “The incidence of cancer according to genders would be different, but on a common ground, the leading cancers in the UAE are breast, thyroid, colorectal, lung and cancer of the cervix.”

“While a family history of a certain kind of cancer is a sure indicator, other issues such as environmental, lifestyle, viruses and certain risk factors are implicated. When we talk of environment, this would include air pollution, inhalation of pollutants, ingestion of chemicals and fertilisers through the food chain, obesity, processed foods, meats, all these can trigger cancers,” said Dr Diab.

In fact, a total of 50 new therapies to treat cancer and lessen its symptoms were developed last year alone, up from 35 treatments developed in 2014, Dr Aladdin Maarraoui, consultant and chief of haematology and oncology at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News.

“While the incidence of cancer is on the rise globally, cancer-related mortalities are declining at about two to three per cent annually. This is because greater awareness and accurate screening methods now allow us to detect the diseases better. In addition, a lot of medical research is centred on developing therapies and drugs to treat cancer,” he added.

The doctor was speaking on the sidelines of a talk held by Rahma, the Cancer Patient Care Society, ahead of World Cancer Day on February 4. Rahma was launched last year following a decree by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council.

Newer therapies

According to Dr Maarraoui, newer therapies focus greatly on working against the 300 human genes known to be related to cancer, and especially against genetic mutations that lead to the progression of cancers, known as driver genes.

Unlike other traditional treatments like chemotherapy, which kill both cancerous and non-cancerous cells, these new treatment methods, or targeted therapies, only work to kill cancer cells and driver mutations.

“In one of the cases we saw at Mafraq, an 84-year-old woman presented with advanced lung cancer, and chemotherapy had failed to stop the progress of the disease. We analysed her cells, found the driver mutation and provided targeted therapy. Her cancer went into remission for nearly three years,” Dr Maarraoui, who is also clinical professor at Gulf Medical University, said.

Although the patient’s cancer relapsed, the doctors were able to isolate the mutation and are now working to get a newly developed drug to control the spread of the disease.

Another new area of research focuses on enhancing the body’s own defence mechanisms against cancer cells.

“The human body has its own T-lymphocytes [a type of white blood cell that promotes cell immunity] to fight cancer, but certain cancer genes can block their effect. So, new drugs are being developed to reduce cancer cells’ resistance to the effect of T-cells, and two have already been approved in the US,” Dr Maarraoui said.

“A diagnosis of cancer [therefore] does not have to be the end of the road, especially in the UAE where the newest treatment methods quickly become available,” he added.

Severin Schwan, CEO of Roche Group, a leader in cancer research, diagnostics and pharmaceuticals, had told Gulf News in September 2015, that by end of 2016, at least two new oral drugs were to make their debut for lung and breast cancer treatments. At least six of their cancer drugs had been accorded the BTD (breakthrough therapy designation) status by the US Food and Drug Administration, he said.

According to Dr Diab: “Earlier, if there were just four or five medicines used in cancer treatment, in the last two decades there have been at least 50 new medications and a bouquet of therapies. We are closer to understanding how cancerous cells behave. The new immunotherapy drugs actually go in as repairmen for the defects in the affected gene in many cases. Now, there are more personalised therapies where the dosage, intensity and duration of the treatment depends on the responsiveness of the patient.”

In the prevention of cervical cancer in women, for instance, Dr Diab said the best prophylactic is the vaccination. But there are many breakthrough therapies that have shown very good results. For instance, the new oral drug for ovarian cancer is a targeted therapy to reduce progression of this cancer.

Breakthrough cancer therapies in the UAE

Ovarian, kidney, lung and skin cancers: “These are advanced oral immunotherapy drugs which are labelled as Anti-EGFR and Anti ALK treatments, used for recurrent, metastatic first- and second-line cancers, “ said Dr Diab.

Duration of treatment: A minimum of one year or until progression is stopped.

Cost of treatment: Dh23,000 per month, approximately.

Although no documented statistics on success rate are available, these therapies have shown to increase life expectancy in cancer patients.