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3 Potential Game-Changing Cancer Drugs

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Cancer just might be one of the scariest words in the English language. What goes through your mind when you hear that someone close to you has cancer? Sadness, probably. Fear, quite possibly. And there's always a sense of relief if you learn that the cancer is treatable.

The good news is that more and more forms of cancer are treatable, with researchers marching full steam ahead to discover more effective treatments. Some of these treatments build upon previous approaches while others introduce surprising new twists. Here are three intriguing approaches to fighting cancer that could be on the way.

1. Feed a virus, starve a cancer
You have probably heard the old expression, "Feed a cold, starve a fever." Now there could be a new spin on the old adage: Feed a virus, starve a cancer.

Oncolytics Biotech (NASDAQOTH: ONCYF  ) counts more than a dozen clinical trials under way with its product, Reolysin, targeting various forms of cancer. Reolysin is Oncolytics' proprietary version of respiratory enteric orphan virus, or reovirus. Chances are pretty good that you have had a personal encounter with the all-too-common reovirus sometime in your life. 

When the reovirus infects a typical human cell, the cell fights back and keeps the reovirus from replicating. However, Oncolytics' research found that this doesn't happen when the reovirus infects a cancer cell. Instead, the reovirus replicates like crazy -- and that ultimately kills the cancer cell.

A late-stage trial for Reolysin in treating head and neck cancers is under way. Oncolytics announced positive preliminary results in December from this study. The company has also seen positive results from mid-stage trials for Reolysin focusing on the treatment of lung cancer andcolorectal cancer. 

Meanwhile, Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN  ) thinks it might be on track to fight cancer using another virus. Talimogene laherparepvec is an experimental drug currently being studied for the treatment of melanoma. The drug uses the herpes simplex virus, or HSV, tag-teamed with a GM-CSF cytokine to harness the body's immune system to kill cancer cells. Amgen expects to announce late-stage results this year.

2. From World War I to the war on cancer
The German army introduced the use of mustard gas during World War I. Several years later, though, scientists researched the possibility for the alkylating agents previously used for mustard gas to treat cancer. This work paid off with several chemotherapies ultimately stemming from the research over the next few decades.

One of the latest cancer drugs to emerge from research on alkylating agents is Ziopharm Oncology's (NASDAQ: ZIOP  )  palifosfamide. Like other alkylating agents, palifosfamide works by interfering with the DNA of cancer cells. Alkylating agents have proven to be quite effective but also can be extremely toxic. A key advantage for palifosfamide is that the drug was designed to be much more tolerable than other similar chemotherapies.

Ziopharm has two late-stage clinical studies in progress for palifosfamide. The study farthest along targets treatment of metastatic soft tissue sarcoma using palifosfamide in combination with doxorubicin. Ziopharm expects to announce initial results from this study within the next few weeks. The other phase 3 trial focuses on using palifosfamide in combination with carboplatin and etoposide as a treatment for patients with extensive-stage small cell lung cancer. Patient enrollment is under way for this study.

3. Cancer, take your vitamins
Have you taken your vitamins today? A major pharmaceutical firm thinks that enabling cancer cells to take a vitamin just might help keep the rest of the body healthy.

Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) is currently awaiting a decision from the European Medicines Agency on vintafolide for treating ovarian cancer. The company licensed the drug from Endocyte (NASDAQ: ECYT  ) in April 2012. Merck and Endocyte also have a phase 3 study under way for vintafolide.

Vintafolide works through a process known as folate targeting. This process takes advantage of the fact that some cancer cells are highly receptive to folic acid, also known as vitamin B9. Vintafolide combines a chemotherapy combined with vitamin B9. The cancer cells soak up the vitamin but also receive a nasty surprise with the cancer-killing chemotherapy. Folate targeting basically is like a pharmaceutical version of the fabled Greek Trojan horse.

Not every patient can benefit from vintafolide because some tumors don't express folate receptors as much as others. To help identify those patients who are good candidates, Endocyte developed a companion diagnostic imaging agent called etarfolatide. This agent enables a non-invasive image of a patient's full body to be evaluated to determine if vintafolide is a good fit. 

While these prospective cancer treatments are intriguing, so are the companies behind them. Investors who are interested in stocks with high risk but potentially high rewards might want to check out Endocyte, Oncolytics Biotech, and Ziopharm. For those who prefer growth with somewhat less risk, Amgen could be a good pick.

Dividend-oriented investors might be enticed by Merck, which currently sports an annual dividend yield of 4%. However, Merck also faces challenges from loss of patent protection for several drugs and recently announced an executive shakeup. Even blue-chip stocks carry risk.

The good news is that multiple ways exist for investors to profit from these new cancer approaches. Even better news is that cancer patients could benefit from these new approaches in the foreseeable future if all goes well. Maybe, just maybe, with more innovative treatments like these, we'll reach the day where cancer isn't quite so scary.

While you can certainly make huge gains in biotechs tackling cancer, the best investing approach is to choose great companies and stick with them for the long term. The Motley Fool's free report "3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich" names stocks that could help you build long-term wealth and retire well, along with some winning wealth-building strategies that every investor should be aware of. Click here now to keep reading.

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