Cancer cells dividing. Image source: National Cancer Institute. 

Globally, cancer doesn't even rank in the top 10 in terms of causes of death as of 2012, per the World Health Organization. But the mystery and ultimately high mortality rate of some cancer types makes it potentially the most dangerous up and coming disease threat.

A global cancer threat looms
The World Health Organization predicts that cancer rates will rise by nearly 60% over a two-decade period to 22 million annual diagnoses from 14 million. Some of this rise actually is good news, because old age is one of the few common risk factors across nearly all cancer types. A rising incidence rate suggests people are living longer, which in turn means that improved global access to medicine and healthcare is making an impact.

But, the opposite side of this coin is the idea of having to deal with rising rates of cancer. Some common cancer types, such as prostate cancer, melanoma, and breast cancer, have witnessed their five-year survival rates push into the 90th percentile over the past three-plus decades. Other cancer types, though, such as lung cancer and pancreatic cancer, have witnessed only minimal improvements since 1975-1977. 

But, as researchers have suggested, it's often not the original tumor that winds up killing a cancer patient, but the metastasis of cancer to other parts of the body that makes the disease incredibly difficult to treat. Understanding the triggers behind metastasis could allow researchers a treasure trove of knowledge that could be used for preventative or treatment purposes.

This dietary ingredient could be a trigger for breast cancer and lung metastasis
One commonly hypothesized "trigger" of cancer metastasis that researchers have been focused on for years is an item found in basically every American household: sugar. Sugar is a source of energy for healthy cells in our bodies, but researchers have long postulated that it could also be the energy source that kicks cancer cells into overdrive. However, proving this hypothesis has been a challenge -- until now.

Image source: Pixabay.

According to a research study released on Dec. 31, by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and published on New Year's Day in online journal Cancer Research, the high amounts of dietary sugar found in Western diets may increase the risk of breast cancer, as well as cancer metastasis to the lungs.

How did researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center come to this conclusion? They tested their hypothesis on mice, giving them levels of sucrose that were as similar as possible to the amount that would be consumed in a Western diet. Researchers also used mice that were genetically predisposed to breast cancer in order to mimic the genetic markers for predisposition that you'd find with some humans.

Image source: National Cancer Institute.

The results showed that when the mice were six months old, 30% of those fed a starch-dominant diet had breast cancer compared to a range of 50% to 58% of mice in the sugar-rich cohorts which had mammary tumors by the same age. Researchers concluded that fructose (the two components of sucrose are glucose and fructose) was the "ingredient," so to speak, that really facilitated breast cancer development and inflammation that's believed to have led to breast cancer development. Fructose is commonly found in table sugar as well as high-fructose corn syrup, a liquid sweetener.

Additionally, researchers concluded that high consumption of fructose led to a greater propensity for cancer metastasis to the lungs in tested mice compared to the mice on the starch-based diet. This is noteworthy, since localized cancer is often considerably easier to treat than a globalized cancer.

What's really notable about this study is that it was the first of its kind in animals to demonstrate that there may be a link between sugar consumption and cancer development/metastasis. As is typical of most initial studies, like the one from MD Anderson Cancer Center, researchers suggested additional follow-up studies be conducted.

Prevention, detection, and medication are the keys to success
If additional studies do conclude that fructose is one external factor that leads to a higher risk of cancer development and metastasis, then it'll allow researchers and the Food and Drug Administration the ability to bring this information to the public for all to see. Educating the public about cancer risk factors doesn't happen overnight, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's war on tobacco, for instance, has been very successful in reducing adult smoking rates over the past 50 years. Smoking tobacco, as you're likely aware, comes with a higher risk of lung cancer and/or cardiovascular disease, and educating the public has done wonders in reducing these risks.

Image source: Myriad Genetics.

But, beyond just taking preventative measures, it's a call for diagnostic developers and drugmakers to work even harder at creating personalized therapies that can aid with the early detection of cancer, as well as the treatment of early stage and metastatic disease.

One prime example in the diagnostic setting is Myriad Genetics (NASDAQ:MYGN) with its BRACAnalysis gene test. Myriad's relatively inexpensive test allows women to discover whether or not they're carriers of the mutant BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. Both mutations are associated with a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Being a carrier of the mutant gene doesn't guarantee cancer development, but it would be a reason for women who do test positive to get regularly screened for cancer.

Perhaps the most famous BRACAnalysis client is Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, whose mother died at a relatively young age from ovarian cancer. In total, Jolie has lost eight family members to cancer (typically breast or ovarian cancer). Jolie has taken the preventative measures of undergoing a mastectomy and having her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in order to lower her risk of cancer development as much as possible.

Image source: Bristol-Myers Squibb.

As it pertains to fighting cancer with pharmaceuticals, all eyes are focused on the potential of cancer immunotherapies. One of cancer's greatest tricks is that it can grow almost undetected by the immune system. Immunotherapies look to change that by masking the immunosuppressant nature of cancer cells, which in turn gives your immune system a fighting chance.

Two prime examples here are Merck's (NYSE:MRK) Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb's (NYSE:BMY) Opdivo, which are both currently approved to treat a type of metastatic melanoma and advanced non-small cell lung cancer patients. These two immunotherapies are geared to work best in patients whose tumors express PD-L1, with response rates in advanced NSCLC patients with high levels of PD-L1 expression basically doubling the previous standard of care. Merck's Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo are both being separately studied in more than two dozen ongoing solid tumor trials.

As an investor of nearly two-decades, this an exciting time in the healthcare sector. But, as a person who lost their mother to cancer, it's even more encouraging to witness the progress being made on the scientific front at all levels of research in the fight against cancer.