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Sixty Years of Fighting Cancer and Still no Magic Bullet

By Sandra Knispel | Published 26 Feb 2012 06:06pm | comments
A breast cancer cell

Hunting for drugs that target only tumor cells and leave the healthy ones alone remains the Holy Grail of cancer drug development. Despite advances in cancer treatment, sixty years after the introduction of the first chemotherapy drugs, the cure-all remains elusive. MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports.

Earliest cancer drugs came directly out of World War II and were nothing other than mustard gas, which brought with it a slew of undesirable side effects. But while scientists have made strides in the war against cancer over the last 60 years, one major problem remains.

“Drugs that damage cells while they are trying to replicate kill off those tumor populations," said Randy Wadkins. "But normal tissues such as your hair follicles are also growing very rapidly. You can see the results of that every day.”

University of Mississippi associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Dr. Randy Wadkins, explained at the monthly Oxford Science Cafe that chemotherapy works by damaging all cells that are actively growing and dividing.

“You may know people who have undergone chemotherapy who –  a common symptom is hair loss. And so that is a problem of almost all the chemotherapies that are available currently.”

While survival rates of certain cancers, especially breast and lung cancers, have improved over the last 60 years – largely due to early detection and anti-smoking campaigns, other survival rates have barely budged, like those for melanoma or pancreatic cancer. Hope, Wadkins says, now rests on advances in genomics, the decoding and study of our genes.

“We don’t really know what to do with all that data yet, so it’s a huge deluge of information. But once we understand better how to look at those interactions and all the changes that are going on in cells, normal versus tumor cells, I think then we’re going to be able to target things a little better.”

Sitting in the audience at Lusa Pastry Café is Carol Mahalitc whose interest is chemotherapy is painfully personal.

“I have my last treatment coming up this week. It’ll be treatment number eight. And then after that I’ve got surgery scheduled and radiation. I have breast cancer," explained Mahalitc. "It's interesting to see that the people we have on campus and the work that they’re doing. It’s really encouraging to know that so many people are working on cancer drugs and a cure for cancer.”

The Oxford Science Café will be back on March 20th at Lusa Pastry Café, asking the next obvious question: Where is the cure for cancer?

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.



A breast cancer cell



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