Science Questions with Surprising Answers
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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Why isn't there just one cure for cancer?

Category: Health      Published: October 1, 2014

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

chemotherapy items
Public Domain Image, source: National Cancer Institute.

There is not one cure or treatment for cancer because cancer is not a single disease. The word "cancer" is an umbrella term that includes hundreds of different diseases. Furthermore, cancer is typically harder to battle than infectious disease because there is no foreign agent attacking the body which can be distinguished from the healthy parts of the body. Instead, cancer involves the body's own cells doing the damage. Therefore, there are just as many different types of cancer as there are different types of cells in our bodies. This means that the type of treatment that is most effective will depend on 1. where the cancer exists in the body, 2. the type of cancer, and 3. how far along the cancer is. In an introduction to the publication titled "Nature Insight: Cancer", the senior editor Bernd Pulverer states, "Cancer is an umbrella term covering a plethora of conditions characterized by unscheduled and uncontrolled cellular proliferation. As the average age in many countries steadily rises, so do cancer-related deaths, so that cancer will be one of the most common causes of death in the 21st century. Almost any mammalian organ and cell type can succumb to oncogenic transformation, giving rise to a bewildering array of clinical outcomes."

For example, thyroid gland cells take in the dietary element iodine more than other cells in order to produce thyroid hormones, which contain iodine atoms. Papillary thyroid cancer cells can therefore be destroyed by giving the patient radioactive iodine (iodine-131). When the patient drinks the radioactive iodine, it enters the bloodstream and then becomes concentrated in the thyroid cells. When this radioactive version of the element undergoes radioactive decay inside the thyroid cells, radiation is released which destroys the cells. In this way, iodine-131 can be used to treat certain thyroid cancers. At the same time, radioactive iodine cannot be used to treat prostate cancer, because prostate cells do not significantly take in iodine.

Topics: cancer, cure for cancer, medicine