Everyone knows about billions of dollars being funded for scientists to do research in order to understand and cure cancer. So what are the scientists actually doing with all that money? Are they really getting any closer to a cure for cancer?
Cancer research as it is done today consists of many different types of research. Basic research, translational research, clinical research. All these different types of research try to understand cancer better and seek a cure for it.
What is cancer?
Cancer is the independent growth of a group of cells (a tumor) in the body. When these cells grow out of control, they spread throughout the body and block normal function of the body’s organs.
Fundamental research in cancer is the study of the cancerous cell. Scientists try to understand how the cancer cell becomes cancerous. They piece together a puzzle of genetic and molecular pathways that result in a normal cell becoming cancerous. There are still many unanswered questions, and the more pieces of the puzzle are found, the more complexity of the puzzle the new pieces reveal.
What is understood now is that each cancer is a different disease altogether. Lung cancer and colon cancer are formed from different molecular pathways and need to be treated differently. Lung cancer in one person is different from the lung cancer in another person. The molecular pathways that one person’s cancer cell has taken are different from that of another person with the same type of cancer. Scientists can, using tiny chips containing DNA called microarray, study the expression of the different cancer genes by each cancer cell. This information can then help scientists identify which molecules to target specifically for each cancer.
Many scientists are studying ways to identify and diagnose cancer at earlier stages when there are no symptoms. Right now, there is no single blood test that can accurately tell one who has cancer from a normal person for any type of cancer. Scientists are working on diagnostic tests that can identify circulating cancer cells in the blood. These tests would be able to screen people for early stage cancer.
Right now cancer therapy consists of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Surgery can remove the bulk of the tumor but cancerous cells may still remain behind as the cell is much much smaller in size than the surgeon’s knife. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are blunderbuss methods. Chemotherapy kills all fast growing cells resulting in hair loss, while radiotherapy kills all the neighbouring cells around the tumor.
Scientists are trying to find drugs that act against specific molecular targets within the cancer cells. One example of such success is the Herceptin drug in breast cancer. However, this drug only targets certain types of breast cancer that are responsive to the drug.
Epidemiology and prevention
Scientists and doctors also study people with cancer to try to identify the causes of cancer. They have found that smoking causes lung cancer and a simple way to try to prevent lung cancer is to stop smoking. Many epidemiological studies are ongoing to identify causes of other cancers such as colorectal and breast cancer so that we can take measures to prevent cancer.
New cancer treatments
When basic and translational research has identified compounds that can potentially target cancer cells, these new drugs need to be tested in humans. Many new drugs are now undergoing clinical trials to see whether they are effective in cancer patients. The road from the identification of the compound to becoming a widely used drug is a long road that takes 10 to 20 years and billions of dollars.
The battle against cancer
Right now, scientists are engaging in an ongoing battle against cancer. The battle against micro-organisms such as bacteria has been almost won by scientists by the use of antibiotics and good hygiene. With perseverance and determination, scientists may eventually tip the balance in our favour in the battle against cancer.