New Lessons in Cancer Research

author: Jacqueline A. Lees, Koch Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Oct. 11, 2011,   recorded: October 2007,   views: 211
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Description

Cancer is a conniving enemy. Try to kill it off through surgery or chemotherapy, and it finds a way to sneak back in. Jacqueline Lees tells an engaged Soap Box audience what insights and tools research now offers in the longstanding battle against this relentless disease.

Big gains have come from molecular study of tumors at different stages, Lees says. It often takes many years for a cancerous cell to develop into a dangerous tumor, one that can yield metastases. There might be six phases of development over 15 years in a cancer’s evolution, and scientists have formed a good understanding of what these different lesions look like in various cancers, and how they behave. Lees calls this process “actually a beautiful example of evolution,” since the cell that mutates and begins to divide uncontrollably evolves to become more successful relative to other cells in the tissue.

Other research focuses on the genetic basis of cancers. Two “flavors” of genes appear responsible for provoking cancerous changes in cells: oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. It may be possible to intervene along the genetic pathways underlying cancer growth, says Lees. Her own work, involving mutant mice and zebrafish, hopes to identify the mechanisms involved in specific kinds of tumors, and to figure out ways of inhibiting cancer cell growth. Understanding the nature of specific cancers might help prevent treating people with chemical agents that don’t work for their kind of cancer, and that actually increase their tumor’s growth.

With the advent of fast and inexpensive genetic screens, it may soon be possible to determine whether each of us carries genes that predispose us toward certain kinds of cancers. But Lees questions the universal adoption of DNA testing, not just because of privacy concerns, but because there may very well be no known cure if a predisposition to disease is found. “If we sequenced every baby, and said you’re highly predisposed to a cancer, and there’s nothing we can do, would that be information people want to have?” Lees wonders. “If we could find a rapid way to sequence small subsets of genome, identify people with high risk and we could treat them if we knew they had those diseases, there’d be an argument for that, much as we do testing for diseases where we know can intervene if find children carrying them,” says Lees.

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