Next month I will be traveling to Denver, Colorado to attend the American Association for Cancer Research’s 100th Annual Meeting as part of their Scientist-Survivor Program. I am very grateful for the invitation. I learned so much from scientists, survivors and other advocates last year when I attended the conference in San Diego for the first time. This time I know ahead of time what an opportunity it will be for me, so I am truly excited to be able to attend again.
I’ve learned some things that had discouraged me from believing there will ever be a cure for cancer. Cancer is actually a group of more than 200 different diseases, and even those diagnosed with identical types of cancer may have genetic differences in their individual tumors that make them unlikely to respond to the same treatments. Cancer is a very complex group of diseases. I couldn’t visualize there ever being hope for a single magnificent “cancer cure”.
We advocates/survivors were encouraged though to attend presentations about cancers that were not of our particular variety (not hard for me as there were no presentations on appendiceal cancer). The rational was that there is research now that takes a broad look at similarities in multiple cancers and at individual genes that are mutated or abnormal in diverse forms of cancer. There is research looking at common threads among multiple cancers. With the completion of the gnome project, there are more angles to approach in solving the problem of cancer. What I learned gave me more hope of maybe one day seeing an end to cancer.
The p53 gene is the “guardian gene of the gnome”, also called the “guardian angel gene”. Proteins produced by the p53 gene combat cancer by arresting abnormal cell growth, repairing defective DNA and causing apoptosis (cell death) of defective cells that cannot be repaired. In 60% of those with cancer, the p53 gene is defective.
While we don’t have a way currently to “fix” genetic defects and mutations, newer research is suggesting maybe the genes aren’t mutated after all, but are just epigenetially “turned off”; their protective function is silenced. Research is underway to learn how to turn silenced protective genes back “on”. So there is potential that some of the non-functioning p53 genes in more than half of cancer cases can be reset to regain their protective function, causing cancerous cells to be eliminated. It might not be a cure-all for cancer, but it potentially could reduce cancer cases by half.
Research is also in progress to learn how cancerous cells acquire the ability to leave tumors and grow at distant sites. Normal cells are “glued” together, are not mobile and will not grow at a location that contains cells from a different organ. Cancer cells do not follow these rules. Ninety percent of cancer deaths are related to metastasis. If scientists discover how cancer cells acquire the ability to metastasize and if we could interfere with that process, cancer would no longer be the deadly disease it is today.
So there is hope in research, but the research is difficult and is currently grossly underfunded. I am excited to learn of hopefully more new avenues being pursued in research this April. I will share what I learn here.