There may never be a universal ‘cure’ for cancer, but tailored cures could be the way forward

Posted by ap507 at Apr 12, 2016 11:20 AM |
PhD student Mohan Harihar discusses why cancer is unique due to its multifaceted nature

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A common remark is that there is, as yet, no ‘cure’ for cancer. Singular.

This notion, in my view, is likely to have been born out of the hopeful outlook that because we currently have access to cures for various diseases, cancer should be no exception.

But is this idea of having a single cure for cancer overly simplistic? As a biochemist and scientist, I would say the answer is ‘yes’.

History has shown, time and time again, that when a disease has reared its ugly head at humanity someone has found a way of apprehending it.  Whilst there was a time the simplest biological entity could be man’s greatest adversary, today a myriad of vaccines and pills exist to combat an assortment of diseases - smallpox, polio, tetanus, measles and malaria to name but a handful.

However these success stories have largely encompassed microbiological conditions caused by a specific bacterial or viral organism. For example smallpox was caused by the variola virus.

Consequently these have been much easier to track down and cure. In contrast cancer appears to buck the trend.

The complex nature of cancer has caused a major headache for researchers across the globe. In 2000, cancer researchers Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan published an article in the prestigious journal Cell, entitled ‘The Hallmarks of Cancer’. The review described six (revised to eight in a follow-up article in 2011) underlying principles which could be attributed to tumour growth.

On top of this the biochemistry which informs each principle comprises numerous signalling pathways individually made up of a variety of components – some of which are yet to be discovered. As a result, disruption in any one of these components could result in cancer. With so many variables to consider is it any surprise that a viable ‘cure’ for cancer has eluded us for so long?

Take for example the RAS-MAP kinase (MAPK) pathway, a largely well-characterised signalling pathway which primarily monitors cell growth but can affect other aspects of cell behaviour.  The core of the pathway contains four to five major, and perhaps more pertinently, known proteins.  Recent evidence from my lab, which is run by Dr Kayoko Tanaka, suggests there are unknown regulators of this pathway which regulate these core components. It will be our aim to shed more light on the mysterious machinery governing this pathway.

All things considered it would seem the road to a universal ‘cure’ will continue to be littered with multiple obstacles. Nevertheless a silver lining may lie with the sheer number of ‘moving parts’ which can lend itself to plausible tailored cures, some of which we are seeing today.

Consequently there is light at the end of the tunnel in the fight against cancer, even if there are challenges to overcome along the way.

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