Cancer: the problem.

I read an interesting blog recently entitled “The War on Cancer” (http://sten.astronomycafe.net/the-war-on-cancer/). Apparently, in the US a little under 600,000 people die of it each year. The author, Dr Sten Odenwald, then set out to illustrate that funding for cancer research is far too low. I think it was President Nixon who coined the phrase, “war on cancer”, and set it as an objective, in the same way Kennedy had set the Moon landing as an objective, but this was doomed to fail, at least in the spectacular way. The reason is the nature of cancer, which, as an aside, is not one disease. We have been trying to cure this for a very long time, but with mixed results. Gaius Plinius Secundus recommended a poultice of broccoli for breast cancer, and asserted it works. There are indeed agents in broccoli that will deal with some breast cancers, but by no means all, and even then, the cancer would need to be near the surface. There are at least twenty different types of breast cancer. Drugs like tamoxifen stop the growth of at least one type, monoclonal antibodies help in some others. So we have made some progress, but there are still severe problems, especially if the tumour metastasizes (dislodges cells to other parts of the body).

It is the nature of cancer that is the problem. Cells grow around nucleic acid, and nucleic acids reproduce by base pairing, then splitting, each strand now being the frame for the production of more nucleic acid. Thus after splitting, when a new double helix is finished being assembled, the amount of nucleic acid has doubled, so a new pair of cells is possible, the old cell having been destroyed. So what can go wrong? You will usually read that copying is not correct, or something is added to the double helix, but I don’t believe that. It is the peculiar nature of the hydrogen bonding that either the correct nucleic acid goes onto the growing strand or nothing does. That is why reproduction is so accurate. In the double helix, the reactive sites are protected, as they are in the interior of the helix, and the outside is the phosphate. A further substitution on the phosphate to make a tri-ester would be a nuisance, but it would not be very stable, and it would repair itself. Further, it would require a highly reactive reagent to do this, as it is exceedingly difficult to make phosphate esters in cold water other than through enzymatic catalysis. No, I think the problem probably arises during the splitting stage when the reactive sites become exposed. If something happens to the nitrogen functions, then that will block the formation of the next double helix at that point.

At that stage, the body will attack the nucleic acid at that point, and the next usual outcome will be that the various parts of the strand will be degraded, and the bits reused or excreted. But if the problem occurred in certain places, it may be that what is left can start reproducing. If that happens you have something growing that has no function for you, BUT it looks like it is part of your body, because up to a point it is. The growth just keeps growing, and reproducing itself. The reason there are so many different cancers is there are so many places where a nucleic acid could go wrong, and each different place that can reproduce will lead to a growth that is slightly different from any others. Because it looks like part of your body, your natural defences ignore it.

So far, we have largely relied on surgery, radiation or drugs. So, how is progress? In some cases, such as leukemia, progress is good, and it is often curable. In other cases, life can be extended, but according to Wikipedia, since Nixon declared war on cancer, the US alone has spent $200 billion on research. Between 1950 and 2005, the death rate, adjusted for population size and age has declined by five per cent. On the other hand, while in remission many patients have had life extended.

However, we should ask, are we doing anything wrong? I think we are, and one problem relates to intellectual property rights. Here is an example of what I mean. In the 1980s I was involved in a project to extract an active material from a marine sponge. My company developed some scale-up technology and made a few grams of this material, which, from reports I received, if the odd microgram was introduced to a solid tumour, the tumour blistered and died, leaving a well-repaired skin outside wherever the organ was. This property was limited to studies on rats, probably with external carcinoma. Anyway, the company that hired us ran into difficulty with its source of funds and went bankrupt, however, somehow ownership of the intellectual property lived on. At the time, there was no known technique of introducing a material as reactive as this to internal tumours, nor did we know whether that would even be beneficial. Essentially, the project was in an early stage, and maybe the material would not be beneficial. Who knows? The problem is, now we don’t know and nobody is likely to work further because the patents have expired. Any company working on that will have all the expense, and then somebody else can come in and take the benefits. In my opinion, this is not a desirable outcome. We should not have a situation where promising knowledge simply gets lost because of formal procedure.

Equally, we should not have the situation where drugs become ridiculously expensive. Why should the unfortunates who get a rather rare cancer have to pay the huge prices of drug companies? I am not saying drug companies should not get a fair return, but I think society should pay for this. Think of it as compulsory insurance. The alternative is a family might have to decide whether to bankrupt themselves, kill the grandchildren’s education prospects to buy a year or so for grandmother, or whether to just let her die. What sort of society is it that allows this?

Cancer is one of those diseases that everybody comes into contact with one way or another. In my case, my father died of pancreatic cancer, and I am a widower because of cancer. Yes, these things happen, but isn’t it in everybody’s interest to try and do what we can to at least minimize the harsh effects?

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