Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., estimated to kill 580,000 Americans in 2013 alone. Early diagnosis and novel treatments have made great strides in saving lives. But are we any closer to knowing what causes it and developing a cure?
USF’s Christina Tzagarakis-Foster discusses what might be our best chance to kill cancer.
Christina Tzagarakis-Foster, associate professor, biology: Studies the DAX-1 protein in stem cells and breast cancer cells, on the theory that it functions like a “brake” on cell growth. When disrupted, uncontrolled cell growth can occur—a tumor.
Can science develop a cure for cancer?
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to completely stop cancer, which is caused by cell mutation that results in uncontrolled cell growth. As long as there are cells, there will be cell growth and cell mutations. Some of those mutations will inevitably lead to cancers.
We already have therapies that successfully “kill” some cancers, but those treatments also affect surrounding “good” cells and make patients sick. Developing more targeted therapies will require a better understanding of how specific cell mutations lead to cancer, and that will require a better understanding of how normal cells function.
Is a one-size-fits-all cancer treatment possible?
I don’t think a silver bullet exists to treat all cancers. Effective treatment will vary from one cancer to another, because each is genetically different.
What’s the most promising approach to treating specific cancers?
More and more research focuses on cancer profiling. This will allow us to genetically map and treat cancers according to both the type of mutation and the type of tissue the cancer is located in—the latter being the focus of current chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
But before therapies based on cancer profiling can begin in earnest, we need a database of cancer cells’ DNA mutations. We need to know what went wrong in a cell in order to treat it. A good example of this is the work being done by scientists at the Cancer Genome Atlas.
So cancer profiling is promising but a ways off?
There are major challenges, including cost and the technical know-how. The good news is that the technology needed to map mutations in tumor cells is improving and will become more cost effective. So, profiling will be used more and more. Eventually, we should be able to target the specific genetic mutations that led to a tumor—treating it, and perhaps even reversing it.
Are there any low-tech solutions?
Improving health and nutrition, minimizing exposure to carcinogens, developing better screenings for early detection, and new cancer treatment therapies are likely to dramatically reduce the number of cancer deaths in the future.