ASK A SCIENTIST
Question: Will they ever find a cure for cancer?
Although there may never be a "wonder drug" that can cure all types of cancer, some types of cancer can be treated and cured. Unlike a viral or bacterial infection, cancer cells develop from DNA mutations in our normal cells. These renegade cells multiply quickly and can spread throughout the body, eventually inhibiting our normal functions. A big challenge in cancer treatment research is to develop a drug that will destroy the cancer cells without destroying normal cells. Another problem is that there is not a specific route that a cell must take to become cancerous. For example, UV light can cause skin cancer, smoking can cause lung cancer and breast cancer can be hereditary. So it may not be possible to block all the routes without hindering normal cellular functions. Some very promising data have been recently published by the American Cancer Society in "The Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer 1975-2001" which indicates a decrease in the incidence rates for all cancers from 1991 through 2001 (Cancer 2004, 101(1) 3-27).
Although advances have been made in cancer therapy, there are still many unanswered questions. A better understanding of the basic molecular mechanism of cancer formation and development could lead to more effective treatment, prevention and diagnostic approaches. While for most cancers, removing the tumor by surgery is the main mode of treatment, chemical, radiological or biological treatments are also used. On-going research is directed toward developing new and more potent anticancer drugs for cancer treatment and/or protection. Scientists are now exploring ways to isolate new active anticancer substances from natural sources or synthesize them in the laboratory. Typically, these chemicals act by affecting important components of cells (DNA, membranes proteins), which will stop or slow the growth of cancerous cell. This will hinder tumor development and avoid the cells to spread in the body.
As a result of these investigations, every year, researchers develop new cancer treatments, but only few reach the market and are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Finding an effective and safe anticancer treatment to test in humans is a long-term, very complex and multidisciplinary process that requires knowledge in many fields (molecular biology, biochemistry, chemistry, epidemiology, bioengineering, etc.). Typically, this is performed in an outstanding research laboratory and is initiated with a study of the mechanism by which the potential anticancer drug acts at a single-cell level. These investigations are then complemented with studies on cancerous tumors and animal models before being tested in human subjects.
Although, so far, there is still not absolute cure for cancer, several dietary and epidemiological studies suggest that many forms of cancer can be prevented by a proper nutrition and healthy lifestyle. For instance, some chemicals called polyphenols have been identified as possessing potential cancer preventive properties, but their mode of action is currently not fully understood and is subject for future research.
Ask a Scientist appears Thursdays. Questions are answered by faculty at Binghamton University. Teachers in the greater Binghamton area who wish to participate in the program are asked to write to Ask A Scientist, c/o Binghamton University, Office of Communications and Marketing, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 or e-mail email@example.com. Check out the Ask a Scientist Web site at askascientist.binghamton.edu. To submit a question, download the submission form(.pdf, 460kb).