What's the Deal with Cancer? Where is Our Cure?
by Joseph Fantini, TPP High School Writing Contest Winner
According to the American Cancer Society, between one-third and one-half of people in the United States will develop a form of cancer. This phenomenon has motivated people to funnel billions of dollars into cancer research facilities. So why hasn’t cancer been cured yet?
Some conspiracy theorists believe that “evil” researchers are hiding the cure in order to milk cancer funding until they retire. If you buy that theory, then there’s your answer. Keep in mind that these are the same people who preach that the moon landing was fake and that the government is trying to brainwash populations with chemicals in tap water. Perhaps a more probable reason cancer hasn’t been cured yet is because it isn’t a singular disease!
Certain cancer treatments work astonishingly well on some individuals and harm others. There is no cure for cancer, rather cures for cancers. This is what complicates the issue. If each tumor behaved identically, researchers would have undoubtedly produced a cure (and the evil researchers would have undoubtedly continued to hide their panacea). Each variety of cancer develops from different tissues in a unique fashion.
For a condition to be considered cancer, its cells must divide uncontrollably. This unmonitored division of cells is caused by genetic mutations. Cancer develops from variations in two different types of genes – oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes are genes that signal cell growth. Mutations in these genes can be seriously harmful, dictating a cell to continue to grow and divide despite signals to stop. The Ras oncogenes in particular are often found at cancer sites. Mutations in these genes alter the formation of proteins. The modification of the protein signals the uncontrollable exponential growth. Of course, this growth eventually results in the tumor’s formation.
On the other hand, tumor suppressors are the opposite of oncogenes. These genes regulate cell growth in the absence of growth signals. One may recognize that each cell has two copies of these suppressors since each cell has two copies of every gene. In a sense, the second copy behaves like a spare tire. If the first “tire” mutates then the cell “switches” it out. Unfortunately, cancer, with its malicious shenanigans, finds ways to make the cell overlook “its spare tire.”
One can logically assume that developing a drug that stops tumor suppressor mutations from occurring would cure these cancers. However, this is not the case. After the first gene mutates, many other genes begin to mutate to make the cancer more stubborn. The large amounts of combinations of mutations that result in cancer make a universal mutation suppressor practically impossible. This also means that two individuals who have breast cancer will not behave identically to similar treatments. The types of mutations dictate a patient’s response to treatment.
Though universal medicine may not be very practical (or even possible for that matter), researchers have developed a treatment that is more universal than any drug. Resection is the process of removing a tumor through an assortment of precise incisions and cuts. Two major issues with this treatment are that 1) it isn’t always possible to perform the treatment given tumor location or a patient’s condition and 2) tumors can redevelop after the treatment.
The best contemporary cancer management revolves around chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy introduces certain tumor-reducing factors into the bloodstream that terminate cell division and destroy existing tumor overgrowths. These chemicals don’t just affect the tumor, but they also extend their influence to normal cells. Hair follicle cell division and growth is terminated as a result of the therapy, which is why individuals undergoing chemotherapy may experience hair loss. Radiation is useful in cancer treatment through its effect on dismantling DNA. By demolishing the mutated genes, the tumor will no longer divide. It is noteworthy that radiation can also effect healthy cells surrounding the tumor.
One of the most innovative new techniques that researchers are using to combat cancer is genome sequencing. Researchers can use the sequenced genome to determine how and where the genes were mutated. Identifying the mutations allows researchers to develop drugs that treat the afflicted genes more effectively. Gene sequencing allows scientists to develop personalized medicines, which are designed to treat an individual’s specific tumor. Two large projects pertaining to cancer genome sequencing are the Cancer Genome Project and The Cancer Cell Line Encyclopedia.
Despite experimenting on almost identical cells, these two projects often came to different conclusions regarding a particular tumor’s response to certain treatments. Therefore, until researchers can develop better techniques to experiment on tumors, personalized medicine will remain unreliable. Despite these roadblocks, most researchers agree that personalized medicine may be most likely the best solution for the world’s cancer epidemic.
The most basic and understandable reason as to why cancer hasn’t been cured is because each cancer is like a snowflake. Identifying what makes a particular cancer unique is crucial to treat it. In the past, without genome sequencing, cancer treatment involved throwing various treatments at a tumor and hoping something worked. Advancements in genome sequencing and personalized medicine are what researchers need to focus on in order to cure this disease that claims countless victims each day. For now, all we can do is hope that the cure is right around the corner.