DNA: Curing Cancer
The Uncontrolled Growth of Abnormal Cells in the Body

DNA: Curing Cancer
The Uncontrolled Growth of Abnormal Cells in the Body

It is almost always impossible to prove exactly what caused a cancer in any individual, because most cancers have multiple possible causes.

Cancers are primarily an environmental disease with 90-95% of cases attributed to environmental factors and 5-10% due to genetics.

A half-century ago, two unknown scientists heralded the dawning of a new era in biology and human life as they entered an English pub. Of course, Jim Watson and Francis Crick were hardly exaggerating.

Their achievements almost single-handedly launched the new science of DNA. Interviews with renowned scientists and stunningly realized animations and reconstructions of key experiments offer an unprecedented glimpse of the molecular basis of life.

In 1994, Bud Romine was diagnosed with an incurable type of cancer, chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). He was given three years to live. In 1996, a newspaper article caught his eye.

It described how a local doctor and researcher, Brian Druker, was looking to test a new kind of cancer drug that targets the damaged gene responsible for CML.

In 1997, months away from death, Romine became the first patient ever to take a drug called Gleevec.

Within 17 days his leukemia had completely disappeared.

Gleevec received FDA approval in May 2001.

On the same month it made the cover of TIME magazine as the "magic bullet" to cure cancer.

Druker, Lydon and Sawyers received the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2009 for "converting a fatal cancer into a manageable chronic condition".

Gleevec also holds the record for the drug with the fastest approval time by the FDA. According to Brian Druker, one of the developers of Imatinib, the biggest obstacle to being approved was the name of the drug.

At that time, the drug was being called "Glivec", which is also the current spelling in most parts of the world.

However, the United States Food and Drug Administration did not want people to mispronounce "Glivec" as "GLIE-VEC" which could be confused with a diabetic drug at the time.

Therefore, Novartis, the pharmaceutical company who markets Gleevec, changed the name of "Glivec" to include two "e's" and avoid the phonetic confusion: Gleevec. Shortly thereafter, Gleevec was approved by the FDA.

Cancer is a large, heterogeneous class of diseases in which a group of cells display uncontrolled growth, invasion that intrudes upon and destroys adjacent tissues, and often metastasizes, wherein the tumor cells spread to other locations in the body via the lymphatic system or through the bloodstream.

These three malignant properties of cancer differentiate malignant tumors from benign tumors, which do not grow uncontrollably, directly invade locally, or metastasize to regional lymph nodes or distant body sites like brain, bone, liver, or other organs.

Researchers divide the causes of cancer into two groups: those with an environmental cause, and those with a hereditary genetic cause. Cancer is primarily an environmental disease, though genetics influence the risk of some cancers.

Common environmental factors leading to cancer include: tobacco use, poor diet and obesity, infection, radiation, lack of physical activity, and environmental pollutants. These environmental factors cause or enhance abnormalities in the genetic material of cells.

Cancer: 'Dying to Have Known'

Cell reproduction is an extremely complex process that is normally tightly regulated by several classes of genes, including oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.

Hereditary or acquired abnormalities in these regulatory genes can lead to the development of cancer.

A small percentage of cancers, approximately five to ten percent, are entirely hereditary.

The presence of cancer can be suspected on the basis of clinical signs and symptoms, or findings after medical imaging. Definitive diagnosis of cancer, however, requires the microscopic examination of a biopsy specimen.

Most cancers can be treated, with the most important modalities being chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. The prognosis in cancer cases can be greatly influenced by the type and location of the cancer and the extent of disease.

While cancer can affect people of all ages, and a few types of cancer are more common in children than in adults, the overall risk of developing cancer generally increases with age, at least up to age 80-85 yr.

In 2007, cancer caused about 13% of all human deaths worldwide (7.9 million). Rates are rising as more people live to an old age and as mass lifestyles changes occur in the developing world.