Many volunteers world-wide commit themselves to raising funds for cancer research and cancer charities. Many hundreds of thousands more work in industry as carers, or researching, prescribing, diagnosing and manufacturing drugs. Huge companies spend fortunes on cancer research. After so long and so many billions spent what exactly has cancer research revealed?
There have been regular breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer, but little progress in its treatment. Modern research into cancer began in 1940's and 50's when scientists isolated substances that killed cancer cells growing in a petri dish, or leukaemia cells in laboratory mice. Early successes in chemotherapy set pace and received much media exposure, even though they only applied to 5% of cancer treatments at most.
Serving humanity by solving its major diseases has a celebrity status, there is a lot of kudos and an air of Hollywood involved in such things. Cancer research is high profile activity and every now and then a scientific treatment is discovered that gains wide recognition, such as HPV-16 trial, but it only applies itself to treatment of a small percentage of cancers. Mass-media hype is part of problem of how we see cancer. Early discoveries set up an expectation that there was a cure-all treatment, a 'magic bullet' that would make its discoverer famous by curing cancer across world. The idea stems in part from aspirin, original bullet that magically finds its way to pain and diminishes it. Even now boasts of 'paradigm shifts' in orthodox cancer care are exaggerated.
In 1950's and 60's huge and expensive research projects were set up to test every known substance to see if it effected cancer cells. You might remember discovery of Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharansus Roseus), which revealed alkaloids (vinblastine and vincristine) that are still used in chemotherapy today. Taxol, a treatment for ovarian and breast cancer originally came from Pacific Yew tree. A treatment for testicular cancer and small-cell lung cancer called 'Etoposide' was derived from May apple. In 'Plants Used Against Cancer' by Jonathan Hartwell over 3,000 plants are identified from medical and folklore sources for treating cancer, about half of which have been shown to have some effect on cancer cells in a test tube.
When these plants are made into synthetic drugs, single chemicals are isolated and rest of plant is usually thrown away. The medicinally active molecules are extracted from plant and modified until they are chemically unique. Then compound is patented, given a brand name and tested.
In first phase it will generally be tested on animals, second phase will decide dosage levels and in phase 3 it is tested on people. By time it is approved by Federal Drugs Authority (in U.S.A.) or Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulation Agency (M.H.R.A.) in Britain, development costs for a new drug can reach five hundred million dollars, which eventually has to be recouped from consumer.
In addition to 'treatment directed' research such as finding chemicals that effect cancer cells, basic research continues apace, into differences between normal and cancerous cells. In last 30 years this research has revealed much about our nature, but still no cure. Below are some current strands of scientific research into cancer.
antibody-guided therapy: this is original 'magic bullet'. Cancer researchers use monoclonal antibodies to carry poisons directly to cancer cells without harming others.
chronobiology: much of what happens in our bodies is governed by cycles, from female monthly cycle to cycles of brainwaves. Human health depends on interacting cycles geared to acts of perception, breathing, reproduction and renewal. Chronobiology analyses these cycles in relation to different times, such as day and night. Hormones, including stress and growth hormones, have their own cycles. For example they may be at their highest activity in morning and quieter at night. Cancer cells seem to no longer obey same cycle rates as normal cells.
Anti-telomerase: one part of a cell, called telomerase, governs life cycle of a cell and how many times it may multiply. Some cancer cells escape this control and can increase number of times they divide, becoming 'immortal'. Researchers hope to gain control over cancer cells by stopping action of telomerase.
Anti-angiogenesis: secondary tumours (metastasis) can persuade cells around them to grow new blood vessels to feed tumours, supplying oxygen and nutrients for growing cancer. This process is called angiogenesis and research here is finding ways to stop signals to normal cells that start process.
Anti-adhesion molecules: Cancer cells form into clumps, unlike those in a petri dish which form into a flatter arrangement. When there are clumps of cells they seem to possess a quality that resists treatment. This strand of research looks at ways that can stop cells clumping together, by dissolving clumps for more effective treatment.