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November 24, 2004
iranian.com

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Switching off cancer

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the shuttle that was taking me to my car from work and was quite busy daydreaming when all of a sudden I heard the following on the radio: "scientists believe that they have found a possible cure for cancer. They have cured some rats of liver cancer and they hope to obtain the same results for humans... "

Since I work in the field of healthcare and will be going to medical school next year, I have a great interest in any news on such topics. Now, if the radio host, who was announcing this news with great fanfare and enthusiasm, was not the host of an AM radio talk show, I and my other colleagues on the shuttle would have been overjoyed upon hearing such news. But because there was no mention of who had conducted the study on the rats and what the source of the news was, I decided to do my own research.

A quick search on PubMed turned up the original article published in the October 10, 2004 issue of the scientific journal Nature. Before I get into the details of the article allow me to give you a brief background on cancer and its causes.

Cancer is the result of uncontrolled growth and division of cells in a particular part of the body. There are numerous checkpoints and correction mechanisms to ensure that the rate of cell division is regulated closely in the body. There are various genes that control cell division and it is the turning on and turning off of these genes that regulates this intricate process. When such genes cannot do their jobs for one reason or another, the cell becomes like a car with a blind driver who cannot see the red lights and stop signs on the streets and drives madly at full speed. When cell division cannot be stopped or controlled, tumors form and the result is cancer.

Liver cancer is one of the deadliest of cancers because of the speed with which it spreads throughout the body (metastasis) and the limited options for treatment that are available. In liver cancer a gene called MYC (pronounced "mick"), which controls cell division, is turned on and cannot be turned off, so the hepatocytes (liver cells) divide indefinitely. The scientists in this latest study figured out a way to turn this particular gene off in rats.

The results were stunning. Not only were they able to stop the progression of the disease, but also they were pleasantly surprised to find that they had been able to reverse the course of the cancer. The cells that had become cancerous became normal again. When they turned MYC back on, the cells began their uncontrollable division and the cancer began to progress as aggressively as it had before.

The results of this study are quite encouraging, because this is the first time that any one has been able to show that turning off MYC can be used as a possible therapeutic measure in the fight against liver cancer. Since MYC is the culprit in several other forms of cancer, this may lead to better and more effective treatment for other types of cancer.

However, this does not mean that a cure for cancer has been found. There are many environmental, genetic, and behavioral factors that can cause cancer and not all cancers are created equal. Depending on what has caused the cancer, what type of cancer it is, and how far it has metastasized there are various courses of treatment that can be taken. Physicians are already able to successfully treat various types of leukemia, breast cancer, thyroid cancer and many others.

Many great discoveries are made every day in the field of medicine but they do not always lead to the development of new treatments and drugs. The preliminary results of these studies are often reached by using animal models and it is not always possible to translate those into studies on humans. So the next time you hear a cure has been found for a disease (especially if you hear it on the popular news media) take the news with a grain of salt and stay tuned for more.

* Read an abstract of the mentioned article (Nature Volume 431, Page 1112).
* For more information on liver cancer see here.
* For information on any health topic go to medlineplus.gov.

MedlinePlus is a "goldmine of good health information from the world's largest medical library, the National Library of Medicine". It is a free service provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine. About the author: Azadeh Namakydoust has a BS in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati and a MS in Biology from Purdue University. She will be attending the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in August of 2005.

About
Azadeh Namakydoust has a BS in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati and a MS in Biology from Purdue University. She will be attending the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in August of 2005.

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