A Cure for Cancer on the Horizon


By Emma Bryan

As seen in Pegasus Pages (Summer 2014)

A sensitive topic for many, cancer, develops in 14.1 million people worldwide each year, and this number is expected to increase to 24 million by 2035. Both human and veterinary medicine are affected, with one in four dogs and one in six cats also being diagnosed in their lifetime. However, new medical advances in the field of immuno-oncology could have the potential to wipe out cancer, using the body’s own natural defences. Cancer is essentially caused by an error in the copying of genetic material when cells are replicated. The human genome is about 3 billion base pairs long and just one mutation could lead to uncontrolled division. For example, a mutation in the p53 gene during DNA replication might mean that the DNA sequence is not “checked” for errors, therefore division happens at a faster rate and produces cancer cells.

Since tumour cells share most of their DNA with body cells, they are not detected by the immune system, whereas when most bacteria or viruses enter the body they are attacked by the immune system almost immediately. These cunning evasion tactics are one of the main reasons why cancer is such a difficult disease to treat. And this is where immune-oncology comes into play.

This relatively new technique differs fundamentally from other cancer treatments, using the body’s own natural defences to recognise and fight the disease. By introducing drugs that enable the immune system to recognise antigens produced by the tumour cells, the cancer can be targeted by T-cells and destroyed. Immuno-oncology has also been shown to work on various types of cancers, including melanoma, kidney cancer and even lung cancer – the statistics speak for themselves, with 80 per cent of trial patients with a deadly form of leukaemia being cured. The unique point about immuno-oncology is that it does not involve powerful techniques such as radiotherapy and toxic chemicals to poison the cancer from outside, but instead works by enabling the immune system itself to destroy tumours. This is through a vaccine that empowers the T-cells to differentiate between normal body cells and cancer cells. The technique is so successful that in a recent trial the patients who were taking the placebo had to be transferred to the immuno-drug for ethical reasons.

Cancer Research

Cancer research has come a long way in the last 50 years. In the 1800s, surgery was the only option for treating the disease, and it was only at the end of that century that Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the first non-surgical cancer treatment – radiation. With little knowledge about the underlying causes, patients were exposed to vast amounts of x-rays and radiation (using the radioactive element, radium) before it was discovered that radiation could in fact cause cancer as well as cure it.

It was not until 1947 that chemotherapy was developed – the first substance used for this being a chemical warfare agent, nitrogen mustard. Both radiotherapy and chemotherapy have progressed significantly as cancer treatments in the last century, however more targeted therapies which rely on a deeper understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of cancer have come to the forefront in the last 20 years, leading to the development of treatments using, for example, monoclonal antibodies and kinase inhibitors.

Scientists are more interested in the genetic makeup of tumours, and how the DNA differs from that of normal cells, in order to provide a more individual treatment.

There is still some way to go until immuno-oncology drugs complete testing, and it is unclear whether they are successful for all types of cancer and for all patients. Nevertheless it is certainly a breakthrough, and a huge progression in the field of oncology, which a few have been brave enough to describe as a cure for cancer. Cancer research provides a spectrum of opportunities not just for biologists, but also chemists, physicists, biochemists, mathematicians and nanobiologists – in fact, all scientists. It is an example of where creative thinking and collaborative research can lead to progressions in science that will change the lives of millions.■

Image: By Digital Wallpapers and cnicholsonpath on Flickr.

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