November 7th, 2012 | WEEKEND

The View from Science Hill

Cancer — or rather, the desire to cure it — is omnipresent in our society. There are the various colors of rubber bracelets. The countless magazine articles. In my high school yearbook, one of the senior superlatives was “Most Likely to Cure Cancer.” But is this elusive cure even a tangible possibility? What is it about cancer that makes it so incredibly difficult to eradicate?

Let’s start from the beginning. We’ve all heard of stem cells, whether in a basic biology class or in a political debate. In reality, 90% of cancer is caused by stem cells — but what makes them so special? Well, in a very indirect way, one could say they are the beginning of life — stem cells are kind of like parent cells. But as “parents,” they need to differentiate very quickly and be able to migrate to different parts of the body rapidly — the perfect attributes for, well, a cancerous cell. As a result, the same genes that have been shown to have roles in cancer are genes that have many “normal” functions, some of them essential. So how do we effectively treat cancer? If we administer drugs that are distributed throughout the body, then we may cause damage by disrupting the function of those genes in normal tissue.

Instead, we may look to an alternative option, as a paper in Nature Magazine suggests: controlling the cancer rather than eradicating it. Rather than trying to battle it with extremely strong cytotoxic drugs that select towards extremely resistant cancer cells, we should just turn it into a chronic, less aggressive disease. Of course, given the tricky nature of cancer, this is easier said than done.

As it turns out, part of the problem reaches to the very essence of evolution. Cancer, at its most basic level, is the uncontrolled growth of cells. Our bodies have many regulatory factors that control the cell cycles, but sometimes we have mutations, and the “brakes” fail. In fact, studies have shown that within each cell of your body, there are a million mutations within each gene, most of which your body detects and destroys. (Each cell has about 25,000 genes — do the math.) Strangely, mutations drive evolution yet cause cancer. They create and destroy us. It is a constant process, full of trade-offs. Simply, nothing is ever the perfect solution – with each benefit, there will always be a cost.

  • yalengineer

    The cancer stem cell proposal is still an interesting one. The best way to tackle the suggestion you propose is targeted therapies against cancer stem cells, a proposal that has still yet to be validated.

    Proposals like antineoplastons and other cancer reprogramming strategies however are essentially quackery. So is pH balancing.