“Get Ready for a Revolution in Cancer Care” by Craig B. Thompson (CEO of Slone-Kettering). The Wall Street Journal, 4/27/2015.
The basics that most of us know: Cancer arises when cells divide and mistakes occur in replicating the DNA for the new cell. The mistakes are random, but environmental factors can make them more likely. And, the more often a cell replicates, the more mistakes will occur just from statistics. Hence, obesity is expected to soon surpass tobacco as the top preventable cause of cancer. (Also, women once had far fewer menstrual cycles as they produced more children. Each menstrual cycle requires lots and lots of new cells, increasing the likelihood of women’s cancers.)
The new understandings and treatments: Our immune system can detect mutated cells with altered DNA and destroy them, just as they do with viral infections. This is going on constantly. However, when damaged tissue has to be repaired, our body works to keep the cells alive, including the mutated cells. The two systems are working at cross purposes.
To make matters worse, the immune system has an off-switch that shuts down a response after a few weeks. New therapies block this off-switch, allowing our own bodies to continue fighting cancer.
When tissue is damaged, primitive “progenitor cells,” quickly reproduce to flood the area. Later, these stem-like cells are signaled to change into tissue matching the original. Some of these cells, however, either do not get the signal or do not change, and continue reproducing without control. Drugs to help the cells change to normal tissue are already being successfully used at Sloan-Kettering.