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A “Fundamental Moment” in Cancer Research

By Brian | December 17, 2009 | Share on Facebook


Scientists have unlocked the entire genetic code of two of the most common cancers – skin and lung – a move they say could revolutionise cancer care. Not only will the cancer maps pave the way for blood tests to spot tumours far earlier, they will also yield new drug targets, says the Wellcome Trust team.

Scientists around the globe are now working to catalogue all the genes that go wrong in many types of human cancer. The UK is looking at breast cancer, Japan at liver and India at mouth. China is studying stomach cancer, and the US is looking at cancers of the brain, ovary and pancreas.

Basically, this redefines cancer from a disease to a series of genetic mutations, each of which can be studied, prevented, treated, or cured. Skin cancer (melanoma) is a combination of 30,000 “errors” in the DNA of the cancerous cells which are not present in the healthy cells. Lung cancer is a series of 23,000 errors. So now, we not only know that sun exposure causes skin cancer and smoking causes lung cancer, but we know why and how they cause it.

I found this particularly eye-opening:

The experts estimate a typical smoker acquires one new mutation for every 15 cigarettes they smoke. Although many of these mutations will be harmless, some will trigger cancer.

Wellcome Trust researcher Dr Peter Campbell, who conducted this research, published in the journal Nature, said: “It’s like playing Russian roulette. Most of the time the mutations will land in innocent parts of the genome, but some will hit the right targets for cancer.”

By quitting smoking, people could reduce their cancer risk back down to “normal” with time, he said. The suspicion is lung cells containing mutations are eventually replaced with new ones free of genetic errors.

So, if you’re incredibly unlucky (meaning every genetic mutation you cause by smoking contributes to lung cancer), then you’ll have cancerous cells in your lungs after 1,534 cigarettes. Or, at a pack per day, in about 77 days. If only one mutation in ten hits the cancer jackpot, then you’ve got 767 days, or just over two years. After that, you’re counting on your body to produce healthy, “error-free” cells at an equal or faster rate than the cancer cells die. Too many cancer cells, and they’ll survive long enough to multiply faster than the healthy cells, at which point, you’ve got yourself a tumor.

Then again, now that we know which genetic defects are at fault, we could invent the medication that prevents the defect (or corrects it, or kills cells that contain it, etc.), effectively providing the “cigarette antidote.” Think of it – a pill that comes in every pack of cigarettes. When you finish the pack, swallow this. Problem solved.

The same applies, of course, to cancers that are contracted through less voluntary means. Targeted treatment against specific defects will redefine our definitions of treatment, side effects, and research priorities. Dr. Michael Stratton, of the Wellcome Trust team, calls it a “fundamental moment in cancer research:”


Topics: The Future is Now | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “A “Fundamental Moment” in Cancer Research”

  1. Janet says at December 17th, 2009 at 11:52 pm :
    But my father-in-law has lung cancer now, and the future isn’t now. It may well be a fundamental moment in cancer research, but it is not yet anywhere near a fundamental moment in cancer treatment.

  2. Brian says at December 18th, 2009 at 12:18 am :
    Sorry to hear about your father-in-law, Janet. Alas, it’s fundamental moments in research that lead to fundamental moments in treatment.

  3. Jeff Porten says at December 18th, 2009 at 3:11 am :
    Won’t be a pill, it’ll be a genetic modification of the tobacco leaf. Which most likely will also be used to deliver other drugs — you can theoretically cure a headache with a smoked aspirin almost instantaneously.

    Your 1-in-10 estimate is way off: that would mean a 100% incidence of lung cancer in smokers, which is about 67% too high. What is *probably* the case is that some people are genetically disinclined to get cancer from smoking, while others are nearly 100% likely, with the majority in the Russian roulette zone.

  4. Janet says at December 18th, 2009 at 9:19 am :
    Jeff, whether or not what you say is “probably” true really is, is that the justification that allows someone as smart as you are to continue doing something as stupid as smoking tobacco? I promise that I’m not going to become a nag – you are smart, and an adult, etc., and can make your own mistakes. I was just struck by the doublethink aspects.

    And thanks, Brian – we found out about six weeks ago, and he was diagnosed five or six weeks before that. It’s stage 3B. Neither conventional nor alternative medicines have much to offer him right now. For what it’s worth, he’s a life-long non-smoker who has been eating vegan for 25 or 30 years, not overweight, exercised regularly, age 74.

  5. Brian says at December 18th, 2009 at 11:54 am :
    @Jeff: reading the article and listening to Dr. Statton speak, my impression was that smokers eventually do have cancerous cells in their lungs (due to the right combination of genetic mutation caused by the cigarettes), but that the healthy cells generally reproduce fast enough to overpower them (i.e., the mutated cells die off before they can divide/reproduce). When enough cells mutate that way, then they start to overcome the healthy cells and can reproduce fast enough to survive – i.e., form a mass of cells/tumor. Then again, I’m just a layperson interpreting the words of an expert – just like you…

    @Janet – Jeff and I have had this conversation more than once. Suffice to say, it’s more complicated than it sounds, but yes – smoking is still a stupid thing and yes, Jeff is a master at double-think (triple-think? over-think?) when it comes to this topic. Also, very sorry to hear about your father-in-law. I hope he’s comfortable now, and remains that way as long as possible…

  6. Blake Rogers says at May 18th, 2010 at 2:10 am :
    Lung Cancer scared the hell out of me that is why i do not smoke cigarettes anymore..’:


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