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A cure for ALL cancers?

by on 2014/02/06

A cure for ALL cancers?

Recently, the Daily Express had a headline entitled “A cure for ALL cancers is on the way as scientists make major breakthrough“. As a cancer researcher, I was attracted immediately to the first page article like a moth to the flame. Likely anybody with relatives or friends with cancer (the majority of us) was attracted to read it too. A cure for all cancers is on the way?  When talking to non-specialists about cancer research and treatments, I find feelings that invariably fit in the grey zone between these two extremes: The conspiracy theorists; which argue that the cure of cancer may already exist, perhaps in the forms of simple natural remedies. But for these people a conspiracy among pharmaceutical companies, with the complicity of the whole medical system, forces patients to take expensive and rather inefficient drugs… On the other end of the spectrum are the absolute optimists, people who believe a magic bullet against all cancers is just around the corner. Hype or reality? Lets take a closer look at this case.

What did the media say?

The newspaper article was properly written, just as we at Research the Headlines expect: the primary research is cited, the names of the principal investigators involved disclosed and the opinion of experts not involved in the study also expressed. Importantly, despite all the fanfare of the headline, and with a start reporting a discovery that is “radical and potentially life-changing”, the body of the article has a much more moderated tone.

The news piece described a breakthrough discovery with research using the blind mole rat (pictured). This rather modest-looking underground animal would not win a pet beauty contest, but has a very interesting characteristic. That is that it has a very long and cancer-free lifespan, especially relative to other rodents such as rats and mice, the most common animals used as models to study human cancer. The main discovery, led by Prof. Avivi from Haifa, Israel, is reported: “Blind mole rats are resistant to spontaneous cancer but also to experimentally induced cancer…. It shows the unique ability of the blind mole rat to inhibit growth and kill cancer cells, but not normal cells. It has evolved efficient anti-cancer mechanisms.”

The piece ends in a quite moderated tone: “There will undoubtedly be many years of extracting the relevant parts of the mole rats’ genetic differences and then – the most difficult aspect – bringing those gene extracts into humans. Prof Avivi is to be congratulated on opening up an exciting new phase of research.” Finally, an official from Cancer Research UK shows caution while maintaining the positive tone: “It’s a long way off, but it will be interesting to see if further research can find a way to help prevent or treat cancer in humans.

What did the research say?

The primary research was published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC-biology. Interestingly, the article was published in August 2013 – the reason the “exclusive” Daily Express headline article was published about six months later is unclear, but appears to be related to a visit to the UK of the principal investigator of the project, Dr. Avivi.  Dr. Avivi has 40 publications in the topic of mole rats and their resistance to cancer and aging, according to PubMed. The article cited described the experimental treatment of mole rats (and laboratory rats and mice controls) to carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer). Such treatments (consistent with the literature) resulted in cancer development in normal lab rats and mice, but not in the mole rats. This is consistent with the observations that mole rats never develop cancer spontaneously.

Why would this happen? The article follows up with experiments demonstrating that the fibroblasts (cells of the connective tissues) from the mole rats secrete factors that are toxic to cancer cells (even human cancer cells). The experiments described were properly performed and numerous control experiments were shown, nevertheless, additional control to test toxic effect to other healthy cells would have been nice. Indeed, numerous factors are toxic to human cancer cells but they are also so to the normal cells the cancer derives from, thus undermining their therapeutic potential. The study left for future research to identify molecularly the factor (s) that possess the anticancer property.

Conclusions

Research in the mole rats is fascinating and can indeed unveil fundamental mechanisms that fight aging and cancer development. The work in the topic is consistent and it is great that the media highlighted a particular paper that makes an incremental advancement in this field of research. Indeed, this particular article is not a first in the topic and it should be relativized by other potentially important mechanisms that have been previously proposed to explain the mole rat’s great feat against the odds. For example, another study suggests that these animals may count on an error-free mechanism for the productions of proteins; another describes increased secretion of Hyaluronic acid, a complex sugar that seems to control cancer via ‘caging’ the tumours, and is a also current darling of the cosmetic anti-aging industry. In conclusion, this headline was based on solid primary research but the novelty and relevance of the results were a bit ‘over-hyped’. While it is important that progress in cancer research is highlighted in the media outlets, caution should be used to remind the readers that potential benefits would be seen only many years in the future. Otherwise, while flashy headlines could help to sell more newspapers, in the long term would do no more than to demoralize the optimists and fuel the flames of the cynics.

I. Manov, M. Hirsh, T. C. Iancu, A. Malik, N. Sotnichenko, M. Band, A. Avivi and I. Shams, (2013). “Pronounced cancer resistance in a subterranean rodent, the blind mole-rat”. BMC Biology vol 11, article 91. doi: 10.1186/1741-7007-11-91

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