Are Scientists Hiding the Cure for Cancer?
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that the government or scientists were hiding the cure for cancer, I’d probably be so rich that I would be living on my own private island and not be in grad school (joke). I have to admit that I was guilty of thinking this was true when I was younger. It seems that scientists have been studying cancer for years and years, and you’d think by now there should be some kind of pill or treatment that can cure all the cancer in the world. But why would someone ever think that if there is a cure, that scientists won’t share this life saving pill? Do you think that if I found the cure, I would keep it to myself and deprive my bank account of millions and millions of dollars that I could potentially earn? Yeah right.
Its really simple, and then its not: cancer is too complicated!
WHAT IS CANCER
In simple terms, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the body. As the building blocks of all your organs and tissues, cell growth is a tightly regulated process. Normals cells grow and divide under strict instruction and supervision from different signals in the body, and when these signals alert cells that their job is done, they stop proliferating. This process is important because the cells in your body can become old, damaged and die, and they need to be replaced efficiently and effectively. Think of when you have an injury like a cut, your cells must be able to grow to replace the cells in your skin tissue so that you can heal. Cancer cells on the other hand, continue to grow and divide like crazy, and then spread to neighboring parts of the body and some forms of cancer cells develop into tumors. It is important to note that not all tumors are cancerous, some can be benign.
WHAT SIGNALS REGULATE CELL GROWTH AND ARE IMPLICATED IN CANCER
Well I wish I could tell you every single one, but the list would probably stretch to the moon and back, (exaggerating a bit). However, in cell growth and division, a key player includes the cyclin dependent kinase molecules (CDK), and they are very important as they act like police at different checkpoints during the cell cycle. They regulate when the cell must grow, rest and divide. The CDKs are highly specialized, and as you can imagine, if something goes wrong, then it’s game over.
COMPLEXITY OF SIGNALING PATHWAYS
Inside every cell of our body contains the information that makes us who we are, our DNA. DNA is encoded into genes, and that information is passed on from our parents to us, and they got it from their parents, who got it from their parents and it goes way back. Changes in our DNA or genetic information as a result of mutations cause the signaling pathways and the correct expression of proteins and hormones in our body to become messed up. Consequently, the signals that correctly regulate cell growth and division get caught up in the mayhem. For one type of cancer, there can be many mutations, and just to show you how complex the signaling pathway is in our body, take a look:
The image above just shows a simplified version of the signals that regulate your gene expression, cell growth and division, and also cell death. It gets even more complicated if you investigate each signaling pathway in depth. Now don’t go confusing yourself, but this just illustrates how complex signaling is in our bodies.
No two cancers are often the same. Different mutations and disruption of specific and different signals causes the initiating factor of cancer to be different in individuals. I mentioned CDKs earlier because they are one of the main regulators of cell growth in cells. However, in breast and other cancers, it's not just these signals that are the culprits, hormones and proteins in your body play a role too. In breast cancer, some of these include factors such as Notch, Wnt, estrogen receptor, HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) among others.
And here is why we can’t have a “one pill cure all”: HER2 may be implicated in the breast cancer that Summer has, which means her body is making too much of this protein that is fueling the cancer’s growth. Then we have Winter’s cancer that is HER2 negative, but estrogen receptor positive, so estrogen is fueling her cancer cells proliferation. So while Summer is receiving treatment that would suppress the HER2 protein, Winter needs treatment to suppress the estrogen hormone. Now here we have Spring, whose cancer is triple negative (TN). This means her cancer’s proliferation is not attributed to the signaling of HER2, or the hormones estrogen and progesterone, but in most TN cancers, the protein Jag 1, which is involved in Notch signaling is implicated.
Now I didn’t mean to throw out all those complicated signals and protein names, but it goes to show that just in breast cancer alone, the treatment can vary so vastly from individual to individual. So while hormone therapy may be an effective treatment option effective for Winter, it won’t help with Spring’s breast cancer. There are so many other factors involved in breast cancer in addition to the examples mentioned above. And just think of how many other types of cancers there are, some of which are equally, if not more complicated in most cases.
So no, scientists aren’t hiding any big cure for cancer. Everyday we make significant breakthroughs in understanding what is causing different kinds of cancers, and then try to develop therapies that will target the initiating factors.