My head is spinning. I have been researching research and it must be said that there are some really, really smart people out there. That’s the good news. The bad news is that my own brain has shrunk with each of my pregnancies and I am less than confident that I will be able to give you a scientifically accurate, detailed report about what is promising in cancer research. I will attempt to provide an overview which I am hoping is all you can handle on a Friday anyway. I may not understand it but there is hope — definitely.
1. Stem cells - I am not going to address the political or ethical ramifications of stem cell research because, not only do I have mixed emotions, I don’t want anyone to egg my house. Basically, stem cells are cells that have the potential to turn into an array of human cells. In your body, the cells look and act differently, e.g. liver cells look and act like liver cells, brain cells look and act like brain cells. Embryonic stem cells are those taken from the center of a blastocyst (a group of cells smaller than the size of a pin head) that develops about 5-14 days after the fertilization of an egg. These cells have the potential to divide and create many more stem cells each with the potential to become any human cell except an egg or a sperm. Adult stem cells, those taken from a person, have more limited potential, e.g. if taken from the bone marrow, they can become any type of blood cell. Researchers are studying stem cells for the treatment of a lot of different diseases and injuries, including cancer. Scientists are also looking at ways to harvest stem cells with unlimited potential without using products of conception. That would hopefully put an end to the controversy and allow productive research to take place unhindered.
2. Superior detection – there is a lot of investigation into methods of better screening tests to detect cancer earlier and better methods of determining who is at risk so that those people can be watched more carefully.
3. Nanoparticles – while they sound like something out of The Jetsons, they are showing real promise for better targeting of cancer cells. Doctors know how to kill cancer cells, they just don’t know how to do it without killing the patient. Most treatments are essentially poison and therefore have to be given in small doses. Nanoparticles can deliver a chemotherapy to a cancer cell with minimum damage to healthy cells, thereby, significantly reducing the side effects and allowing for relatively higher doses of the drug to reach the bad cells. I never thought we would be able to see the person we were talking to on the phone, now there is iChat. Nanoparticles — why not?
4. Anti-angiogenic drugs – tumors need blood supply. Without the nutrients and oxygen provided by the blood, tumors would die. This relatively new class of drugs is designed to attack the blood vessels that are being formed to supply a growing tumor and the results are very encouraging.
5. Gene therapy – several different ways to treat cancer by manipulating the genetic make up of the patient are currently at the clinical trial stage. Some scientists are targeting healthy cells to improve their ability to fight cancer, others are targeting cancer cells to prevent their growth or to make them more susceptible to chemo and radiation.
Ultimately, many of the different techniques that are on the horizon will probably be used in conjunction. Imagine more sophisticated screening which identifies a tumor in its very early stages. Follow that up with drugs to prevent new blood vessels from giving the tumor any of its essential needs, coupled with gene therapy to make it more sensitive to chemotherapy that is being brought directly to the cancer cells by nanoparticles. For good measure, throw some stem cells at any part of the body that has been damaged from the enemy.
THAT is what I call a war on cancer!
I have a headache from all the big words in the research updates and scientific papers so that will be the topic for next week. Pick up a bottle of Excedrin and check in with me at YesFive.
Have a fantastic weekend — take lots of deep breaths and lots of big sips.