Rethinking Cancer, Part 2

April 28, 2014

The second reason to think that cancer should not be thought of or treated like a genetic disease comes from a different kind of evidence. The important question is this: "Which genes are mutated in cancer cells that make them act like, you know, cancer cells?" The answer might surprise you.

 

If you pluck a cell out of a cancer tumor and look at its DNA, it will likely have hundreds of mutated genes. It seems reasonable that therapies to fix some of those mutations might be good therapies. The problem is that, if you pluck a second cell from the same tumor and check out its DNA, you will very likely find hundreds of different genes mutated.

 

In fact, in any given bunch of cancer cells, cells might differ by 100% in the specific genes that are mutated in each of them. How does anyone develop a genetic treatment for a given person's cancer when each cancer cell has a unique set of mutated genes?

 

The answer is, this is not a situation where genetic therapies show promise. So far, over 700 genetic therapies for cancer have been tested. None has worked. Surprise, surprise.

 

So why is the genetic model of cancer being pursued with such vigor in the conventional medical world? The answer is quite simple: money. Genetic therapies have the blessing of a biotech industry that is banking on big profits from these therapies. 

 

​The genetic model of cancer has a few very appealing characteristics. They make it hard to give up and look elsewhere, no matter how profound the failure so far. Here are some appealing aspects of the genetic model of cancer to the medical industry:

 

  • It places the cause of cancer out of sight and completely inaccessible to people who have cancer. Cancer, in this theory, results from events buried in the deep interior of cells, hidden from everyone except those with powerful technologies that can probe the nucleus of cancer cells;

  • Treatment in this model is dependent upon high tech interventions. Research labs with fabulously expensive technologies get enormous amounts of funding from both government and private investors to develop the next (actually, the first) great genetic therapy to cure cancer.

  • When cancer is considered a genetic disease, the power to impact the disease is taken out of the hands of patients and placed squarely into the hands of those with the technologies needed to assess and treat genes.

 

Never mind that neither the assessments nor the treatments have produced results. So long as science journalists will keep splashing the science headlines with enticing stories about the next promising breakthrough in genetic therapies for cancer, it is easy to think that some of those must have actually been a breakthrough. One would think.

 

 

 

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