Hope and Faith in Research
- Published on Monday, 05 August 2013 09:00
Throughout the world, there is an incredible amount of research being carried out into cancer and every little piece of new information about the disease, its causes and possibilities of a potential treatment, will make banner headlines in the media. That cancer is news is understandable: the disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, responsible for 7.6 million deaths annually.
It is also understandable that we leap onto any positive news from cancer researchers because no matter how hopeful we might feel about our own condition or that of a loved one, there is still a pervasive feeling of dread around a diagnosis. The advancements in treatment that mean the disease is no longer an inevitable death sentence, are all a direct result of the tremendous efforts of those researchers and scientists who spends days, weeks and months analysing petri dishes and cell growth.
While it's right to greet new research with a degree of caution - and to ignore the claims made by over-zealous media reports regarding the discovery of a “cure” - perhaps we can afford to be mildly optimistic about recent findings from the United States, although it should be clear any effect on treatment will be a long time away.
The Little Creature With a Big Future...
Most folks probably haven't even heard of naked mole rats. Yet these hairless subterranean rodents found in Africa are unique among small rodents in that they never get cancer! Even more bizarrely, these baggy little creatures can live to the age of 30, almost 10 times as long as other rodents such as mice. Scientists have been intrigued by the mole rat's extraordinary longevity and it also piqued the curiosity of a team of biologists from the University of Rochester, New York. They set out to discover exactly what sets these tiny creatures apart from other rodents and to uncover what lies in their genetic make-up that gives them this unusual resistance to cancer.
What they found is that the mole rat's skin cells are high in a chemical called high molecular weight hyaluranon (HMW-HA) a natural sticky sugar that is found between the cells in skin tissue. HMW-HA holds the cells together and, in mole rats, it is thought to be what gives the creature its distinctively baggy appearance. HMW-HA is found in all mammals, but it is the levels in mole rats that are unusual - around five times more than the levels found in humans. HMW-HA is already used in the world of medicine with a similar version of the substance is used to ease the symptoms of arthritis and also as a cosmetic filler in anti-wrinkle treatments. Crucially, when the Rochester team removed HMW-HA from mole rat tissue, the cells lost their defence against cancer and became vulnerable to tumours, demonstrating that it's HMW-HA that stops the creature getting cancer.
A Potential Treatment?
So what does all of that actually mean for humans and for future cancer treatment? Well, right now, not a lot is the honest truth. Much more research is needed and the team at Rochester now has to test its theory that an excess of HMW-HA can protect against cancer growth on mice. If those outcomes are good, the next stage will be clinical trials involving human participants. So while the news from the States is very positive and definitely interesting, the fact is that mole rats' resistance to cancer will have little or no effect on anyone currently managing cancer.
Although any successful treatment is in the future, we can still enjoy the good news and take great hope from the work of scientists like those at Rochester. We can only place our faith in their ability to explore and examine the disease to improve their understanding. Living with cancer can be horribly tough, managing often debilitating treatments and learning to handle setbacks. Some people search out other ways to cope, perhaps searching for spiritual comfort through religion or support from those in the same situation through online or face-to-face networks. Others are not quite so positive and might be tempted to seek solace in alcohol, drugs or prescription medication before then having to face up to a new problem in the shape of addiction. The process of recovery, coupled with living with cancer, would take its toll on anyone.
This kind of situation is exactly why we need to hear positive and upbeat news from the world of medicine and science about what they are discovering about cancer. Surely it is better to focus positively on such amazing advances and improvements made regularly in cancer treatments for future patients. Absorb those statistics about survival rates and how a diagnosis need no longer be the death sentence it was a few short years ago.
When we read about how a team of scientists has analysed and explored a tiny rodent that lives underground in a hole and figured out that it might - just might - hold one of the keys to avoiding or surviving cancer, that's news we can certainly celebrate. So let's hear it for the mole rat!
by Lisa Marwood