Science is Sexy: “The Cure for Cancer”

By Jimmy Rogers (@me)
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Yes, we at Geeks are Sexy have discovered the cure for cancer! And for this, we ask for nothing more in return than your eternal gratitude.

Ok, ok, so there are two small problems in the first sentence of this post.  First of all, we’re a blog, not a well funded group of scientists (well actually I’m a scientist, but that’s another matter).  Second, and more importantly, the hypothetical “cure for cancer” that is often tossed about in conversation is a misleading concept.  Let’s explore this second point a little further.

The other day I read a great webcomic about the day to day life of a cancer researcher and I realized that a huge number of people still have no idea what cancer is or how we might combat it.  To the general public, cancer is a dark cloud that affects the old and those exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.  It is seen as a disease that afflicts humans without warning or consideration for the human condition.

This view, while not necessarily wrong, has lead to the concept of a single “cure for cancer,” much like that found in I Am Legend (it causes the zombies, if you’ve forgotten).  Unlike other afflictions, cancer is not the result of a foreign invader or an injury.  Instead, it is the failure of the body’s natural growth controls.

Anaphase in MitosisMost body cells will grow and replicate, but only up to a certain point.  With each replication (in a process called mitosis, depicted on the right), their genomes grow shorter until they reach a point where replication can no longer occur.  There are instances where the DNA can be extended repeatedly and the cell can essentially be “immortalized.”  Unfortunately, immortality in the world of cell biology is known as cancer.

Beyond just the “first steps” of cancer, the actual disease experienced by millions every year surfaces after a cancerous cell has multiplied and begun to essentially form a new organ, a tumor.  The tumor will redirect blood and nutrients toward itself and eventually colonize new areas of the body (a stage called metastasis).

The Elements of Cancer

So what can we do to “cure” cancer?  Well essentially cancer forming cells occur naturally in the body of every human over the course of his or her lifetime.  Normally these cells either recognize the error and “commit suicide” (apoptosis) or the immune system notices them and neutralizes them.  It is only in the rare instance of a mutation that allows a cell to replicate endlessly AND evade the immune system that cancer can develop.  Those seeking to treat the disease can either target cells that are rapidly dividing (this is the strategy behind chemotherapy) or remove tumors once they become large enough to target surgically.

Something that the aforementioned webcomic discusses is the plight of the molecular biologists researching cancer.  There is not just one type of cancer, but instead there are many (The National Cancer Institute’s general list of cancers will give you some idea, but the number is in the hundreds).  Every normal body cell can become cancerous and each of those cells has a different interaction with the body.  Some cancers have already been cured while others remain a challenge to obtain funding for.  Personally, as a young biologist, I’ve thought about taking my new career toward cancer research, and believe me, it’s fairly daunting.  Cancer’s very definition as a complex regulatory disease means there will be no simple solutions and few big breakthroughs.  Progress has been made, but only through many years of painstaking experimentation, both in and out of the lab.

I hope those of you not in the biological sciences have gotten a little better understanding of cancer than you had when you began reading this article.  If we get good feedback we hope to make “Science is Sexy” a regular feature on GaS that will inform, entertain, and even occasionally editorialize in regards to a broad array of science topics.  I am a PhD student in Microbiology (starting next semester), so topics in the life sciences will probably be more common, but hopefully we can branch out into other fields as well.  Please, please, please leave your thoughts about this article and ideas for future articles in the comments section below!

Other installment of the “Science is Sexy” series:

[Header picture source: Flickr | Mitosis image is public domain, found on the Mitosis Wikipedia article | The Elements of Cancer image is an exerpt from PhD’s Comic about Cancer]

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