The dilemma around modern cancer treatment

Written by Linzasaur

Cancer has been a long-term nemesis of the human race for decades.

Cancer has been a long-term nemesis of the human race for decades. Carcinogens (a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue) in our favourite foods and as a result of habits such as cigarettes are in their hundreds and no amount of human evolution seems to be slowing down the mighty disease. The western lifestyle we are used to comes at a cost.

With so many different causes for the development of cancer, it has remained one of the trickiest diseases to treat, despite the huge advances in the past few years. Doctors have hundreds of names for the types of cancers we can end up with, and usually there is a targeted drug or treatment for them. However, cancer therapy may actually be too targeted if more than one mutation is responsible for a tumour and treatments have been known to fail.

Angiosarcoma is an incredibly rare and aggressive cancer of the blood vessels, which affects approximately 100 people each year and is often fatal.  Like all cancer it can occur spontaneously without warning, or it can form after exposure to a carcinogen.

Thinking about ‘a suitable treatment’

Commonly, it can be a result of radiotherapy, a frequent treatment of cancer. The radiation used for cancer treatment is called ionizing radiation because it forms ions in the cells of the tissues it passes through. Electrons are dislodged from atoms which can end in the cell dying or its genes changing so that it can no longer grow. Unfortunately, this means that there is also a chance of the genes being damaged in a way that leads to uncontrolled division – a tumour – then potentially another cancer.

There are drugs that target specific pathways involved in the formation of angiosarcoma blood vessels but they often have little or no success. The mutations involved in angiosarcomas include two cancer genes, PTPRB andPLCG1, but it has been discovered that in some patients, multiple mutations can be involved in blood vessel growth. These can make drugs ineffective in some patients; destroying part of the tumour but allowing another part that is not being targeted at all to grow freely with less competition.

“This indicates that we may need to think more broadly to find a suitable treatment,” says Dr Pete Campbell from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

It’s for reasons like these that so many alternative measures are still being researched, involving fewer substances that could cause further mutations. For example, this week a study has shown that cannabis could be used as a treatment to prevent tumour growth. The effects of an ingredient in marijuana on tumour growth has been speculated for a while, but a study at the University of East Anglia feels they have shed some light on the matter.

Comfortable treatment hoped for

The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis is called Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its effect on tumour growth remains poorly understood. However, researchers injected THC into laboratory mice bearing human cancer cells, and two specific receptors that are responsible for the compound’s effects on tumour growth were identified. This could pave the way to creating a synthetic substitute for cannabis that can fight cancer in a safe way.

Furthermore, research being conducted at Cancer Research UK has identified a potential new treatment for the most aggressive form of lung cancer. Tumours create energy which leads to the production of lactate as a by-product.

Monocarboxylate transporters (MCTs) are the molecules involved in the removing lactate from the cells. The drug that is currently in clinical trials targets one of these modules called MCT1 in lung cancer cells, which has been found to increase the level of lactate in cells and as a result reduce tumour growth.

Targeting tumour cell metabolism is an exciting approach to cancer treatment, because in theory there should be minimal side-effects for the patient. Often patients suffer with nausea and many other unfavourable problems associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but one day in the near future we could well be able to battle cancer in a much more comfortable way.

What do you think? What direction should cancer treatment go? Have your say in the comments section below.