If you read the news regularly, the word ‘cancer’ is difficult to escape. The extensive media attention given to the word is not without reason; cancer is now the leading cause of death globally. According to the WHO, it causes 1 in 6 deaths across the world. Whilst it is thought that ageing populations, high pollution levels and the invention of tobacco have led to an increased incidence over the past 100 years, cancer has probably affected human beings for thousands of years. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that human bone cancer affected ancient Egyptians as early as 1600 BC.
Unsurprisingly then, most scientific breakthroughs on the disease automatically make the headlines. Often, these headlines are riddled with exaggerated phrases and extreme language, making it rather difficult to distinguish scientific facts from wishful thinking. In the midst of all this media madness, no one seems to be clear on how close the science actually is to finding a cure. Here at Qured, we decided to take a closer look at how close we actually are…
Miraculously, cures for some cancers already exist. Most cases of testicular cancer, for example, can be cured using chemotherapy drugs, meaning that there is approximately a 98% survival rate today. Other curable cancers (case dependent) include some leukaemias and many thyroid cancers. Unfortunately, however, these are only a small sample of the hundreds of cancers affecting the human population today.
In terms of treatment, we are constantly improving and enhancing our ability to prolong lives and eradicate cancer with the use of chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiotherapy and tumour surgery to name just a few. Unfortunately, however, most of these treatments are often inefficient, overly invasive and painful. Some particularly aggressive cancers are also becoming resilient to commonly used treatments. Additionally, tumours removed in surgery often re-form, meaning that surgery comes with very little guarantee of long-term success.
“So we’re pretty far off finding a cure then?”. Perhaps, but let’s have a closer look at some current research and revolutionary treatments.
This form of cancer therapy aims to boost our immune system specifically in response to the spread of harmful cancer cells. In other words, it attempts to reinforce the body’s existing protection (mostly in the form of white blood cells) that we naturally develop against harmful cells.
“That sounds like a cure!”. Unfortunately, not at the moment. Despite the help that immunotherapy can give to our immune systems, some cancers are so aggressive that they’re actually able to manipulate our immune systems into ignoring them, or even helping them to spread through the body. Cancer cells do this by sending not one (as normal harmful cells do), but TWO signals for ‘foreign object’ to our bodies’ white blood cells. This ensures that they are are unrecognisable as their harmful selves, and white blood cells read them as ‘un-harmful’.
However, last year, Nature Immunology published a study suggesting that it may eventually be possible to block the relevant signalling pathways which prevent white blood cells from eradicating the cancer cells. Immunotherapy, therefore, has potential to save a lot of lives, but further research is certainly needed.
Tumour starvation strategies
Another stream of research involves the strategy of “starving” tumours to prevent them from receiving all the nutrients they require to grow and expand. For example, reducing the supply of glutamine, a naturally occurring amino acid which feeds breast cancer and colon growth. According to Medical News Today, this strategy could be a ‘saving grace’ when it comes to aggressive cancers that are too resilient to be effectively destroyed by other means. In fact, Research from the University of Salford suggested that reducing the amount of vitamin b-2 available to cancer cells reduces the amount of energy they have, a strategy that has the potential to be as effective as chemotherapy, and yet nowhere near as invasive.
The Nano-Particle Revolution
According to Medical News Today, the past couple of years have seen a “boom” in nanotechnology and nanoparticle developments for cancer treatments. This expanding stream of technology is so revolutionary because it has to potential to target cancer cells and tumours without harming the surrounding healthy cells. An example of this technology, called focused hyperthermic treatment, is even able to use heat to make tiny cancer tumours shrink. Additionally, tiny things called nanoprobes can actually be used to detect micrometastases (secondary tumours so small that they cannot be seen using traditional methods). According to the Director of the Rutgers Cancer Institue, Dr. Steven Libutti, micromestastases can be thought of as the “Achilles’ heel of surgical management for cancer”, and that nanoprobes might be the weapon we need to destroy them.
Compared to the magical spells thought to treat cancer-like symptoms that were recorded by the Ancient Egyptians on Papyrus, all of these scientific advancements are truly astonishing.
Despite this, unfortunately, there is unlikely to ever be a single ‘cure’ for cancer. However, this is not because the science is too complicated, its because a single ‘cure’ for cancer is completely unrealistic and almost definitely doesn’t exist. Cancers come in a multitude of forms and all vary immensely. This becomes clear when you go back to the simple definition of cancer:
“a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in any part of the body.” Cancer Research UK even encourages us on their website to think about cancer as an umbrella term for hundreds of different diseases.
Therefore, we shouldn’t really be striving for a single ‘cure for cancer’ in the first place. Each person’s cancer is entirely unique and would require individual treatment and consideration to really tackle it, even if humans had unlimited scientific knowledge. Tumours, for example, are as unique as fingerprints in terms of their formation and the treatment required to eradicate them.
What we can strive for is continuous research, effort, funding and utilisation of the most intelligent minds towards new discoveries and improved treatments. Whilst a single cure is probably impossible, according to our research, there will likely be many more cures for individual cancers, and there will certainly be an improved ability to prolong the lives of cancer patients and make them significantly less painful.