Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Will Cancer Ever be Cured?

I know a little something about cancer. I'm no expert but I know a little more than the average bear. With cancer, it all starts in the DNA. In fact everything about every species starts in the DNA, which is amazing when you think about it.

Cancer is a fatal genetic mutation. It has numerous forms and each type is caused by something different. I bet you'd be surprised to know that these dangerous genetic mutations occur more frequently than you'd think. Probably on the order of every second of your life. The thing is that most of the time your body has a system of checks and balances that makes sure problems get fixed quickly.

What happens when the system fails? Well in that case death occurs, but not all the time is it dangerous to the organism involved. Most of the time the cell line will die or the cell that is damaged will die. Cancer only becomes cancer after several generations of division. At this stage, the cells have established a new line and will divide and conquer.

That is when it gets scary. First there is a harmful mutation in the DNA. A protein may be formed that performs a different job than it is designated for. Sometimes that protein is in too high a number, or too low a number. Sometimes other things happen. Next the cancer cells survive all checkpoints and that becomes the normal cell process. Finally the cancer becomes immortal.

Yes, the cancer cells could live forever. Our telomeres are regions of DNA that determine how long a cell line has to live. Each division the telomeres shorten and at some point they are too short, become unstable, and the cell dies. Cancer figures out a way to fix this problem and establishes immortality. Crazy right?!

Right now, we have very effective ways to TREAT cancer and it will only get better. One day we will probably be able to target specific cells and kill only the cancerous ones at the moment they become defined as cancer, before a large tumor grows. But will we ever be able to cure cancer?

My belief is NO!

As I stated earlier, cancer can be caused by a mutation. These mutations happen all the time. In the world of the microscopic, chemical interactions are based on statistics. There is a certain likelihood that a certain interaction will occur and there are a huge number of other interactions that can occur. It just works out that most of the time the reaction that is beneficial to an organisms survival has the highest likelihood of happening. Unfortunately that only works out most of the time (and by most I mean more than 50%). The rest of the time there is some other reaction that occurs and that is when cancer can rear its ugly head.

To be able to cure cancer would require a control of physics and chemistry beyond the realm of modern science. Not just modern science, but it may even involved control of the laws of physics or even breaking them, which can never happen. Curing cancer would give us control over probability, which can never truly be 100% guaranteed.

If you roll a dice, you have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling any number. If you roll a weighted die you may tip the odds toward one number so it may turn up more frequently, but you still have a chance to roll the other numbers. At the microscopic level, interactions occur with these same statistics involved. One day soon we may be able to provide a 60% chance that no one anywhere will have cancer, but there is still a 40% chance (which is pretty large) that someone will have it.

Perhaps some time in the future we will have effectively eliminated cancer. But those odds would have to be 90% or better. This would also mean that from the moment we are born, we are provided drugs that we may have to take for the rest of our lives. The other possibility would be gene therapy where children would be born with the genes their parents decided would be best instead of the genes inherited from their parents. Neither scenario is a world I want to be a part of, so for now I'll be happy with the super effective treatment of cancerous cells.


Jaguarjo2 said...

Enjoyed your article, as a non biophysics person who is 18 months  out from an nasty encounter with Her2 breast cancer.  It is a very logical explanation that I haven' found anywhere else.

Anthony Salvagno said...

Well I'm glad to hear that you recovered from your experinece. I don't think we'll ever stop cancer from forming but we can effectively cure those who have it and those technologies will only improve.

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