I'm Trying To Cure Cancer: 6 Things I Shouldn't Tell You
If we've learned anything from the onslaught of medical shows over the past three decades, it's that doctors have two main problems in life -- love triangles and cancer. But since producers are forced to reduce years of work on cancer research into two-minute montages, most people have next to no idea what actually goes on in a lab. We sat down with Paul Akhenblit and Dr. Ruth (no relation to the German sex-positive sniper), two cancer researchers in the American Southwest, to find out what it's like to be fighting on the front lines in the war on cancer. They told us ...
It's Impossible To Find A Cure That Affects Every Patient
One of the most persistent myths about cancer is that it's a singular disease that science will one day be able to nuke out of existence. For the purposes of simplification, saying the phrase "cure for cancer" is a relatively easy way to explain the goals of an experiment so that the public can get excited about research.
"We've been researching the causes of pseudomyxoma perito- uh, cancer stuff."
The reality is that telling someone that you have cancer, or even cancer in a specific body part, is like telling people you're a fan of music: It's generally not enough info to discern anything relevant. Paul gets frustrated by this on a regular basis. "There are many possible combinations of mutations, and many cells dividing," he explained. "This means some pathways are active in some cancers and not present in others. In the news, we always laugh at reports like 'Cure For Liver Cancer Coming Soon!' Usually what they mean is that for a very specific type of liver cancer ... they found a way to help treat it. For a sub-population of patients with that kind of cancer, they finally have a treatment that can send that cancer into remission.
"Due to different enzymes, inhibitors, and other factors, the best-case scenario is that the 'cure' is benign. The worst case is that it only kills half the cancer and aggravates the rest of it."
We'd compare cancer to terrorism, but that's underselling it.
Dr. Ruth agreed, as she's seen the fundraising side of research impacted by this misunderstanding. "I work in a lab that focuses on a specific type of cancer, and donors always demand a 100 percent blanket treatment, not a treatment for a specific mutation that covers 0.1 percent of all [cancer patients]," she explained. "Even with most donors having lost loved ones to a particular type of cancer, many still don't get that one type of cancer can splinter off. ... Donors want a cure, and they want it now, but it takes patience."
We know we already clarified it for you, but it didn't help us: We're still reading all of Dr. Ruth's quotes in that accent. It's somber but adorable.
Cancer Is Not Simply Runaway Cell Division
Many new scientists who enter cancer research are not prepared for all of the variables that the job will throw at you. They'll maintain the rudimentary concept of runaway cell division, like they never went to college. According to Paul, "If we were to define cancer by just rapid cell division, a fetus and hair growth would be considered cancer too."
Normally, children and their hair aren't considered cancers
until they become teenagers.
"Here's the scary part for researchers and one of the biggest stumbling blocks for us when it comes to public understanding," Paul elaborated. "Many cancers can grow or survive without cell division. There is sustained angiogenesis, which activates blood supply to the cancer to provide nutrients. There are cancer cells that just refuse to die and stay active in the body. There is a self-sufficient growth signal, when a cancer cell just decides to grow all of a sudden. There's limitless replication potential, where cancer cells just keep dividing and dividing. And, finally, there's metastasis, where the cancer will leave the original site and grow elsewhere in the body."
There's also telestasis, which goes and returns as the plot demands.
"When cancer decides on another growth mechanism, it flips the medical bird at whatever research we'd already been working on, often forcing doctors and researchers to start from scratch. A cancer that forms differently can also be confusing. With many cancers, knowing how it formed can mean the difference between life and death for the patient."
In drastically oversimplified language, it's like the split timelines in Back To The Future Part II. There are two worlds with the same inhabitants, but the origin stories are totally different, and one is usually much uglier than the other.
Some Discoveries Are A Complete Accident
The majority of cancer treatments are formed as a result of studying what molecular combinations will produce the most desirable results. While slow and steady often wins the research race, many methods are discovered using the Forrest Gump method of just blindly stumbling into success. Paul recounts one of these happy accidents when researching metastatic breast cancer. "We noticed that in India and Bangladesh, the metastatic breast cancer rates were shockingly low," he said. "So we looked into diets there, specifically the use of curry. A common way to prevent breast cancer in many towns was to heap on the curry and mustards, so that was investigated. It turns out that a molecule in the curry, curcumin, actually helps to slow down cancer and helps prevent [metastasizing] cancer."
For best results, pour the curry directly into your bra.*
Curry is far from the only thing we've thrown at cancer to see what'll stick. Testicular cancer was one of the deadliest varieties until one researcher just decided to add some platinum into the mix, which resulted in a type of chemotherapy called cisplatin. Today, it's responsible for the relief of around 90 percent of all testicular cancer patients. Cancer in general recently had a huge breakthrough when someone thought to convert a 2D image of cancer into a 3D one, radically changing how we see the development of cancer in its cell structure.
And as much as we might scoff at Eastern medicine, traditional cures from places like China have seen success rates high enough that the Chinese government is actually funding research into why those traditional methods help. The Cleveland Clinic, one of the most prestigious hospitals in the United States, opened an Herbal Therapy wing in which some terrible diseases (yes, including cancer) can be treated with traditional methods.
"Cool, whatever, just stay away from my dick."
As Dr. Ruth told us, "We play around with things at times, but there is always a reason. Some of these odd substances and methods can actually help a lot."
So there you have it: Eat a bunch of Indian food and live forever!*
*We are as far from scientists as a human being can possibly get, and our advice should never be followed or, indeed, listened to at all.
Decades Of Work Can Be For Nothing
Researchers, particularly those whose job it is to monitor slow-acting experiments such as cancer treatments, will often spend the majority of their careers on only a couple of projects. And though some of these projects will get a spark from something unexpected (like the curry), that doesn't mean that researchers have totally free rein. Sometimes, they have to simply sit down and please their donors.
"First off, you need funding," Paul explained. "If you choose a cancer that isn't well-known or is too depressing, then you aren't getting any. Right now, breast cancer has a hugely disproportionate amount of funding against all other cancer research. That's not to say it isn't important, but when the public's focus goes to a specific type of cancer, it leaves other cancers with the lowest amount of funding. Interestingly, lung and prostate cancer are almost as common but receive less attention."
People choose breasts over what's up men's butts, for some reason.
Once you secure funding, the work begins. Cancer treatments, like any type of drug, can take years and even decades to develop. Researchers will first create a list of thousands of molecules and pare it down to about half a dozen that can work together, a process that can take years on its own. Then they'll move onto animal studies, and finally human studies, both of which can also take years. Drug testing is the biggest chunk of the research. For the first few years, they'll do placebos and blind studies. Finally, there's a 500-person mass test.
The last stage is where everything often fails. The big, bad FDA needs to approve each treatment, and a multi-billion-dollar project (that's billion, with a B) can go down the toilet because the FDA is in a foul mood that day. "I know people who spent 19 years on a certain cancer treatment pill, only to find in the 500-person study that it didn't work with as many people as the FDA saw as 'usable,' so millions of dollars and two decades of their lives were for nothing. ... We can't give up on finding treatments, and we still find new ones each year, but to some researchers it can be very disheartening."
Ah, yes, if there's one thing we can relate to, it's the overwhelming urge to just give up in the face of adversity.
Many People Don't Understand How Research Works
Real-world research doesn't work like it does in the movies. It's never an old lone wolf operating out of a clean room in his basement. "It's a bunch of 20-somethings as technicians or PhD students, because all the old guys are supervising or running the lab or trying to secure more funding," said Paul.
Stupid Hollywood, too scared to show us young, attractive 20-somethings.
"We work as a team, slowly building up an understanding of the models we are on. One person working alone is bad, because no one is there to double- or triple-check the work. He may be missing parts of the process with no one to remind him, and they may forget to eat or sleep. In a team, we are constantly reminded to since we get so caught up in the research."
And when donors start looking for tangible results, things can get awkward. Because they're financially (and often emotionally) attached to the project, they want results. "We've had donors walk in on us doing embarrassing things," said Dr. Ruth. "When our janitors went on strike, we were cleaning the mice cages when the founder of the foundation sponsoring part of our research came in and demanded we stop and get back to research. Since a soiled cage could mess up results through bacteria or make the mice sick, not to mention the smell, it was actually important to do that. But nope, if we weren't looking like stereotypical scientists, we weren't working."
"Quick, gimme that flask of blue stuff! It looks sciencey."
"One donor REALLY wanted to get into one of our storage areas," she continued. "That storage room was sealed so that no bacteria or anything could get in and contaminate the samples. Well, there were no windows, and he assumed we were doing non-cancer-related things. Eventually we let him in at the earliest we could without ruining our work, and he spent an hour going through the room, just waiting to find something that showed we weren't working. Sealing samples may not seem like something important, but to researchers, it is, and he just didn't understand that he couldn't see everything."
Yes, some very influential people believe that, just like in Independence Day, good science should be loud, explosive, and easily understood through very stupid metaphors.
It Can Be Surprisingly Dangerous
"The worst thing is the needles," Paul said. "We use needles every day for injecting cells or treatments into animals, and if the protocol doesn't require them to be anesthetized during this, they often squirm around, and we can miss injecting them."
And to anesthetize them, they'd still have to inject them, so they're screwed either way.
We think you know what's coming next: Paul becomes Cancer Man, with all the proportionate speed and strength of cancer!
Or, wait, maybe it's something not idiotic:
"Yes, we often inject ourselves with cancer. Surprisingly, this is not that dangerous, since injecting cancer into yourself will not give you cancer. Your body's immune system will fight foreign cancer immediately."
Real xenophobic, that body of yours.
"What do you need to worry about?" Paul went on. "Striking the bone with [big needles] or hitting the thumb in the knuckle. Because of the big needle going in and how the thumb is built, this can cause severe damage. Cancer researchers and anyone working with needles have had their thumbs or fingers amputated because of this.
"One colleague, when starting out, worked with a guy really into hitting weights," Dr. Ruth told us. "He didn't have the best coordination, though. When he tried to inject a mouse, it moved out of the way, causing the needle to go through the mouse's forearm, through the webbing between his thumb and index finger, and out. He was out for a few days, since animal blood in humans is pretty dangerous."
And it makes you smell like bacon to vampires.
So, at the end of the day, researchers want you to know that they're slowly defeating cancer, even if they can't give you a thumbs-up to confirm it.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy at Cracked. If you have an awesome story idea for us, hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now let's take a look at the folks on the other end of the spectrum in 6 People Who Died In Order To Prove A (Stupid) Point and 5 Things I Learned Cutting My Boobs Off To Avoid Cancer.
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