• Question: how do you find cures for cancer?

    Asked by Rebecca to Isabel on 14 Mar 2015.
    • Photo: Isabel Pires

      Isabel Pires answered on 14 Mar 2015:

      In order to start to look at treatments for cancer, scientists such as myself have to start and look at how cells in the body behave in normal conditions. Since cancer is a consequence of what happens when a cell starts behaving badly, we then have to look at how and why cancer cells behave and change the way they do, and how is that different from how normal cells behave.

      Many cancer treatments are based on the fact that cancer cells behave differently than normal cells. For example, we know that cancer cells divide very fast, which makes the cancer grow fast. In fact, they divide faster than normal cells in that organ or tissue do. Because of that, some of our most common ways to treat cancers, like chemotherapy, rely on the fact that the cancer cells are dividing really fast. Chemotherapy chemicals cause damage to the cancer cell DNA that they cannot repair fast enough and kills them. Normal cells, because they don’t divide as fast, are much less affected by the chemical.
      Many of the newer and more exciting ways to treat cancer take this a step further, and are design to hit the cancer cells alone, exploring the changes they had to have to become a cancer cell.

      So, by learning how cancer cells behave and change, we can start to think of ways to hit them specifically. When we have a good idea of a target on the cancer cell, we get in touch with chemists which can make a chemical to hit that target. This is then tested in the lab in many ways, so we understand how it is working and how well it is working and whether it is toxic of harmful to normal cells. Only after we do a lot of tests that doctors can take the new chemical to be tested in hospitals. This again, has to be done in many steps to check if it works in people, what side effects they get, how much you can give to them. These are called clinical trials and are only possible because patients volunteer for them, so we should be very thankful for all their help. Only after all these clinical trails are down that the new medicine can then be considered to be used to treat new cancer patients. It can take a long time to get to this stage, and it all starts with looking at cells and having ideas…