Cancer is when something in your body goes wrong. A cell that normally should stop growing or die refuses to do so.
It keeps dividing. As it grows, it forms a mass of cells that may or may not decide to stop.
If it doesn’t, it may spread to other parts of the body and possibly lead to death.
There are many things that have to go wrong for cancer to form. Your body has an astonishingly diverse array of methods and mechanisms to eliminate cells that are growing abnormally.
While these approaches work very well for the vast majority of the time, over a life of living, it just needs to break down once for a tumor to develop.
The treatment of cancer has evolved over time.
Because we are better able to handle cancer at all stages – detection, removal, treatment, and prevention of relapse – we are getting increasingly better life expectations from someone who is diagnosed with cancer.
The first wave of cancer therapy originated from world war activities. People who were accidentally exposed to a certain toxic gas suffered from a significant depletion of their immune system.
Their immune system was greatly weakened, and cell growth of immune cells strongly suppressed.
This was unfortunate for those exposed, but it gave doctors an idea.
What if we give that type of gas to someone who is suffering from the exact opposite condition – that their immune cells were growing too fast, forming a tumor, and causing serious problem?
Experimentation with that idea led to the first chemotherapies. These treatments worked to suppress rapidly growing cells and were a breakthrough.
As you can imagine, however, there were serious problems with this approach.
Most importantly, treatments derived from this idea tended to be very toxic. The idea was to target rapidly dividing cells in general, which makes sense, as few cells divide and grow more rapidly than cancer cells.
But it meant that the treatments were highly toxic and could easily damage normal cells as well, which also need to grow, or are susceptible to the damage.
Where is the future of treatments for cancer?
The future treatment of cancer hopes to target abnormalities that are specifically associated with the cancer. One such example is by targeting angiogenesis.
Angiogenesis is a big word which means something simple: the process of forming new blood vessels. Blood vessels are a complex system that route blood through your body to make sure that your tissues get blood supply.
Cancers need to grow. And to grow they need a constant supply of nutrients. This supply can’t usually be provided by the existing network of blood vessels that your body has.
The answer lies in a devious mechanism. The cancer decides to grow its own blood supply.
It seeps out the right chemicals that induce vessels to grow to it. Not only do these vessels feed its expansion, they also allow it to escape and spread to other parts of the body.
The hope developed that we could knock this process out and so stop cancers from growing.
This is called the anti-angiogenesis approach to the treatment of cancer.
It seems brilliant and quite logical. And initial research into the subject seemed to be positive. But the results to date have been limited.
While we have developed a few anti-angiogenesis drugs, none of them have really made that big of an impact.
There are many other similar ideas that are leading cancer research and treatment forward.