Thursday, January 1, 2015

One Reason Why Cancer is So Hard to Treat

A few years ago, I saw a local news story about a "cure" for cancer that a man had developed in his garage using a modified microwave and small metal orbs. The idea was that the metal orbs could be placed inside biological material, the microwave device could be turned on, and the tissue around the metal balls would be killed. To prove the concept, the man put some orbs into a hotdog, turned on the machine, and sure enough, the area around the metal orbs "died".

Seems like with careful calibration, one could simply put some metal orbs inside of tumors and zap them away once and for all, right?

Obviously this technique has not cured cancer (for multiple reasons). In this post, I will point out one of the fundamental reasons why cancer is so difficult to cure in hopes that the public will be better educated about this condition. For all you science people out there, I am way oversimplifying things. I know it is way more complicated than what I am about to describe. :)

I will start by explaining why bacterial and fungal infections (unlike cancer), and generally simple to treat.

If, lets say, a prokaryotic organism infects a person (eukaryotic), how do we get rid of the prokaryotic organism? If our only goal was to kill the prokaryotes (the bacteria that are taking up residence inside the body), and we didn't care whether or not the host died, we could submerge the host in a vat of extremely concentrated acid. This would kill the prokaryotes. Unfortunately, there would also be some inconvenient side effects for the host (death).

So, instead of using a giant vat of acid, we find other ways to kill the prokaryotes that don't involve serious side effects for the host (such as death). We do this by finding a poison that hurts prokaryotes, but doesn't hurt humans (made of eukaryotic cells).

This is usually pretty easy to do. I will illustrate why using pictures.

These are standard infectious prokaryotic warriors.

This is a human eukaryotic cell.

The point of this? Even if you don't understand cell biology very well, you can see that the prokaryote and the eukaryote are VERY different. This means that they function in very different ways. Because of that, it is relatively simple to find a poison that will kill prokaryotes, and not kill eukaryotes. We call these poisons "antibiotics".

The same is true for fungal infections.

Here is a fungal ambusher. They are fierce in combat.

Note: While my other drawings were at least somewhat accurate, my fungus drawing is not accurate on the cellular level, at all. But hey, I wanted to draw a mushroom.

Point stays the same--fungal cells are very different than eukaryotic cells, so they are relatively easy to kill without hurting the host!

And now we return to cancer. Why is it so difficult to treat?

Once again I will use pictures to demonstrate.

Here is a human eukaryotic cell:

And here, is a human eukaryotic cell.

The only difference is that the second one is cancerous. No, wait... The first one is cancerous... No... Um...

You see, cancer cells are tough to distinguish from human eukaryotic cells, because, well, they are human eukaryotic cells (with a few modifications that happen to make them very, very lethal). They multiply quickly, they ignore signals from other cells, they force blood vessels to provide them with supplies, they leave their normal homes and create colonies in other parts of the body. They are human cells that have "gone rogue".

Cancer cells are you.

Because of this, it is VERY hard to find a poison that will hurt the cancer cells and not hurt the human "host". The differences are so small, that treatment for cancer often turns into an arms race. The poisons that hurt cancer also hurt the human--and in order to fully kill the cancer, it almost takes killing the human.

In addition, just like human cells, cancer cells can adapt to toxins, pumping "anti-cancer" drugs out of their cytoplasms before they can take effect. Cancer cells are also diverse--there isn't just one kind.

This means that we need to find poisons that will distinguish each individual kind of cancer from nearly identical human cells.

This is why funding is needed for further research in the fight against cancer. We CAN identify the differences between human cells and cancer cells, and we CAN develop drugs that will take advantage. Tremendous progress has already been made. But due to the wide array of cancer types and the ability of cancer cells to change, especially in response to treatments, there is still a long way to go.

The more we invest in cancer research, the better we will be able to provide patients with medications that have fewer side effects and better outcomes.

If you want to help, You can always donate to a research institute or participate in events like Race For The Cure.

Much more important than that is to vote for officials that support research and education. Government funding for research far exceeds the support that can be raised in other ways. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! I know that simple cancer cures are shams. Otherwise, my dad being a medical oncologist wouldn't make much sense. But now I have a better idea of why.