This week’s Science Sunday is in the area of preventative medicine. I chose a blog post from The Guardian entitled Unbreakable: do superheroes, impervious to cancer, walk among us? originally published on Feb. 3.
The article itself does a very good job of explaining the scientific topics it brings up, so before I delve into why I chose this article, I’m just briefly going to highlight a few important concepts in the article. The links this week go more in depth into the scientific background of the topic and are probably more well suited for readers with a background in science.
- Tumor escape (explained better in the article than any single resource I can find)
- Genetic predisposition to cancer
The field of preventative medicine, especially in the area of cancer, is a new hot topic in research but rarely gets the attention in the public press that other cancer-related research does, mainly because there hasn’t yet been one standout moment to propel the field forward and into the public eye. That’s why I chose this article this week. It provides a good background for both scientists in other fields and the public to understand the difficulties behind this type of research. It’s almost like looking for a needle [the as-of-yet unidentified genes] in a haystack [every human who does not have cancer]. Most people won’t know whether they carry gene mutations that predisposes them to cancer until either they develop cancer, or a close relative does and then they get tested to determine their own risk. It’s even more difficult to identify genes that protect from developing cancer, because, as the article states, there’s no good way to identify these patients; once they have been identified, it’s still difficult to know whether it’s a gene or something else that is the reason they haven’t gotten sick. The article explains some techniques being used in the field to try and overcome these hurdles and move the research forward.
I found this article to be particularly interesting as a scientist coming at cancer from the opposite end: immunotherapy is generally used to treat late-stage cancer patients for whom other, more traditional avenues of treatment have been unsuccessful. In that case, we know that the cancer is there; we have information about the patients and the previous treatments they have received; we can study the tumors on a genetic and molecular level; and we can use this information to design the best new treatments possible given all of the information we’ve gathered. Researchers in the area of preventative medicine have none of this information, but are still trying to reach the same endpoint of developing ways to stop cancer.