Cancer drugs are, to be honest, a club being used where a scalpel is needed. Most modern chemotherapy treatments hinge on the principle that certain drugs will kill the cancer quicker than the patient as their indiscriminate nature makes no distinction between fast growing cancer cells and regular ones. Thus any form of treatment that can either reduce the amount of drugs used or get them to target cancer cells specifically is keenly researched as they can drastically improve the quality of life of the patient whilst increasing overall effectiveness. Such improvements are few and far between and rarely come hand in hand. A new development, coming off the back of the “unboiled” egg research announced earlier this year, however may improve both fronts for current cancer treatments.
The initial research, which I refrained from writing on at the time, is pretty interesting even if the headlines don’t exactly match the reality. Essentially the researchers, based out of University of California (Irvine Campus) and chemists within Australia, have developed a process to take cooked egg protein and revert part of it back to its original form. The process they do this with is rather interesting and begins with them liquefying the egg using an urea based substance. This now liquid cooked egg, which at a protein level is still all tangled up, is then put into a machine called a vortex fluidic device (VFD) which applies an incredible amount of shear force to those proteins. This forces the proteins to untangle themselves and return to their original form. While this might sound like a whole lot of nothing it essentially allows for the mass manufacture of proteins that aren’t jumbled or misfolded which are invaluable to many areas of research.
More recent research however has employed the use of this device in conjunction with a widely used cancer drug, carboplatin. Carboplatin was introduced some 30 years ago and is favoured due to its reduced and more manageable side effects when compared to drugs that use a similar method of action. However that reduced effectiveness means that a higher dosage is required to achieve the same level of treatment, on the order of 4 times or so. Carboplatin is also a stable drug which doesn’t break down as rapidly as other drugs do, however this also means that it can readily pass through the body with up to 90% of the dosage being recoverable from a patient’s urine. Using the VFD however has the potential to change that dramatically.
The same researchers behind the original discovery have used the VFD to embed carboplatin in molecules that are called lipid mimics which are powerful antioxidants. This has done through previous methods however the use of the VFD has increased the rate at which the drug was embedded in the mimics, from 17% to 75%. This means that the drug will be about 4 times as effective in delivering its payload, allowing doctors to significantly reduce the amount used to achieve the same results. This will dramatically improve patient’s quality of life through better outcomes and significantly reduce side effects. Such a process could also be applied to other treatments as the lipid mimics are capable of storing water soluble active agents as well.
It might not be the most headline grabbing title however it has the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness of current cancer treatments whilst keeping the patient’s quality of life high. Like all improvements it’s likely going to be specific to certain treatments and types of cancer however it will likely lead onto further research that will hopefully improve all areas of cancer research.
Vaccines are responsible for preventing millions upon millions of deaths each year through the immunity they grant us to otherwise life threatening diseases. Their efficacy and safety is undisputed (at least from a scientific perspective anyway, which is the only way that matters honestly) and this mostly comes from the fact that they use our own immune system as the mechanism of action. A typical vaccine uses part of the virus to trigger the immune system to produce the right antibodies without having to endure the potentially deadly symptoms that the virus can cause. This response is powerful enough to provide immunity from those diseases and so researchers have long looked for ways of harnessing the body’s natural defenses against other, more troubling conditions and a recent development could see vaccines used to treat a whole host of things that you wouldn’t think would be possible.
Conditions that are currently considered terminal, like cancer, often stem from the body lacking the ability to mount a defensive response. For cancer this is because the cells themselves look the same as normal healthy cells, despite their nature to reproduce in an uncontrolled fashion, which means that the immune system ignores them. These cells do have signatures that we can detect however and we can actually program people’s immune systems to register those cells as foreign, triggering an immune response. However this treatment (which relies on extracting the patient’s white blood cells, turning them into dendritic cells and programming them with the tumour’s antigens) is expensive and of limited on-going effectiveness. However the new treatment devised by researchers at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering uses a novel method which drastically increases this treatment’s effectiveness and duration.
The vaccine they’ve created uses 3D nano structures which, when injected into a patient, form a sort of microscopic haystack (pictured above). These structures can be loaded with all sorts of compounds however in this particular experiment they loaded them with the antigens found on a specific type of cancer cells. Once these rods have been injected they then capture within them the dendritic cells that are responsible for triggering an immune response. The dendritic cells are then programmed with the cancer antigens and, when released, trigger a body wide immune response. The treatment was highly effective in a mouse model with a 90% survival rate for animals who would have otherwise died at 25 days.
The potential for this is quite staggering as it provides us another avenue to elicit an immune response, one that appears to be far less invasive and more effective than current alternatives provide. Of course such treatments are still like years away from seeing clinical trials but with such promising results in the mouse model I’m sure it will happen eventually. What will be interesting to see is if this method of delivery can be used to deliver traditional vaccines as well, potentially paving the way for more vaccines to be administered in a single dose. I know that it seems like every other week we come up with another cure for cancer but this one seems to have some real promise behind it and I can’t wait to see how it performs in us humans.
Yesterday I posted the below picture to Twitter, exclaiming that showed the dire state of Australia’s health when compared to the rest of the world. Since then I’ve had several people point out the correlation between the countries suffering from high cancer incident rates: they’re nearly all developed nations who have a decent healthcare system. The theory then goes that these figures are somewhat meaningless as lower incidents of cancer typically means people aren’t living long enough to get it. Whilst I agree that this is true to some extent it’s unfortunately not as simple as that and some new research I came across today could point to something that shows why Australia’s incident rate is so high.
Now this graphic, whilst giving you a great overview, is unfortunately a rather blunt instrument for validating the theory that better health care = longer lives = higher cancer incident rate. Primarily this is because of its resolution which makes it hard to pick out the smaller countries, specifically the developed ones that have low rates of cancer. Singapore for instance has the lowest rate out of many countries with a per capita income that ranks in the top ten of the world. Similarly Japan, whilst not being the anomaly that Singapore seems to be, has a rate that’s dramatically lower than Australia (about 70 per 100,000) with a population that’s aging and is almost 6 times the size.
Initially I was going to make a point about skin cancer as Australia is a well known offender with our incident rate for melanoma around 90 per 100,000. Surprisingly New Zealand is not too far behind in this regard and the drop after that is quite incredible with the next closest competitor being Norway with an incident rate that’s almost half of anywhere else. That leads me to believe it’s somewhat cultural as whilst we like to blame the hole in the ozone layer it’s actually anything but since its reach doesn’t extend up to our continent. Since this kind of cancer is almost entirely preventable I felt the need to rant at Australians who are knowingly killing themselves but there might be an even wider issue that could have a far greater impact on this.
Obesity is a major issue for a lot of western developed countries and if you overlay the graphs from here with the one shown above it’s hard to deny the strong correlation between the two. Indeed whilst the level of healthcare and wealth might be a good predictor for the incident rate of cancer in a country obesity is a much better predictor and the links between obesity and certain types of cancer is well known. The same argument against wealth also works for obesity (people don’t get as fat in poor countries) however this is, again, a preventable risk factor for cancer. Combining these two factors together and you have a recipe for Australia being a hot bed for cancer, one that it needn’t be at all.
The good news is that, should you want to avoid the major risk factors for getting cancer in Australia, you can do that without a meaningful impact on your life. It might be time for the government to resurrect the campaigns of decades past, albeit with an additional message to watch your weight as well as your exposure to the sun. They had an impact, I can still remember the jingle like I heard it yesterday, and it’s prime time to get the next generation of Australians thinking about their long term health.
Once something is ingrained in the public’s mind it becomes increasingly difficult to convince them of the opposite idea. Initial thoughts turn into innate biases and anecdotal evidence becomes undeniable fact. I can’t really put the whole blame on the public themselves since we don’t all spend the hours required to fact check everything so some of the blame rests with the media and their reporting of such things. One of these such things is the link between mobile phones and cancer which, despite a fair body of evidence to the contrary, still manages to rear its ugly head at the dinner table. Even with evidence like this people will still choose to believe the anecdotes over fact:
A very large, 30-year study of just about everyone in Scandinavia shows no link between mobile phone use and brain tumours, researchers reported on Thursday.
Even though mobile telephone use soared in the 1990s and afterward, brain tumours did not become any more common during this time, the researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Some activist groups and a few researchers have raised concerns about a link between mobile phones and several kinds of cancer, including brain tumours, although years of research have failed to establish a connection.
What interests me the most about this is that although people will still spout things like “cell phones cause cancer” they will still go ahead and use them day after day. I think the main reason behind this is the fact that although there might be a chance that it does increase your risk of cancer (most of the studies still conclude that the 20~30 year usage range needs further studies) it is so low that it doesn’t really affect them. The same can be said for smoking and unhealthy eating since for the most part the damage is so low and slow that you don’t notice it building up on you. This was very true with cigarettes 50 years ago when doctors would recommend them to their patients, not knowing the long term health problems the addictions would incur. The mental gymnastics people employ for their self destructive habits is quite amazing sometimes.
The real issue here is one of education since the method of communication (mass media et al) with the public at large is not particularly suited towards this kind of critical thinking. This has become quite apparently recently with the whole Emissions Trading Scheme legislation which, thanks to an almost soap opera-esque leadership spill in the Liberal party, has pushed Tony Abbott and his bizarre ideals on climate change. Right now it appears he’s attempting to make it look like the Rudd government is trying to tax us all for no appreciable benefit, when he can do the same for basically free. Trying to find some solid information on his policy leads me to mostly dead ends but the few articles I could find on it would see Abbott attempt massive carbon sequestering, something which does not solve the underlying problem. Let’s also not forget that Abbott has also promoted a climate change denier in the form of Nick Minchin (to call him a skeptic is completely misleading), a man who 14 years ago was a second hand smoke “skeptic”. He’s right up there with the other loonies who believe that this whole carbon thing is an attempt to deindustrialize the western world (and bring in communism, that’s right climate change is a COMMUNIST CONSPIRACY!!). You can see why I’m worried about these people pushing their views on the wider public of Australia, they’re disregarding all evidence in favour of pushing party lines.
I’m just glad that they’ll go down in flames come the next election .
Whilst there are many great educational and skeptical resources available out there most of them aren’t really targetted at the everyman. Skeptics et al have a terrible habit of preaching to the choir
and their rhetoric leaves much to be desired. When your target audience thinks that Ask Bossy is good lunchtime reading you’ve got to change your game plan to match, and that’s a process that many of us (myself included) find quite hard to do. The day that skepticism becomes sexy and cool is the day that I stop writing on the subject, since everyone will be doing my work for me.
Or maybe the ABC just needs to move Media Watch to primetime.