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Thursday, April 12, 2012
Health / Nutrition ... Society ...

I recently read an interesting little article on The Scientist web site about cancer and stem cells. One of the big areas of cancer research right now is on the role of stem cells in triggering a cancerous state within the body.

Stem cells are special in that they can trigger the growth of new tissue and organs when needed, through an accelerated process and coordinated pattern of cell division. Normal cells mostly stay in a dormant phase, splitting every now and then as to make a replacement for themselves when they get old and creaky.

Stem cells do more than replace, they start the building of a whole new operating component in the body. It’s like the difference between patching up things as your house deteriorates (roof, windows, plumbing, etc.), versus building a new house (or a big addition to the old house). Stem cells mostly operate when our bodies are young (i.e., when we are “under construction”), but medical research hopes to find ways to stimulate them to do more to help repair a diseased organ or other major component in the body, e.g. replace muscles in the heart that have gone bad or rebuild insulin producing cells in the pancreas.

Sounds great! But like most things, stem cells have a dark side. They can also be the architect and initiator of a cancerous growth, one that spreads out of control (if recent research turns out to be correct). They can create “evil cells” in sufficient quantity as to quickly form a cancerous appendage to the body, one with its own special blood vessel system. Sometimes the body’s immune system catches on and stops these evil cells in their tracks. But if those cells are fast enough, the new “cancer component” becomes too big for the immune system and starts taking over the body’s resources, putting it onto a death spiral as the cancerous tumor grows and grows.

Once that happens, the medical profession has several weapons to stop the process. The first priority is to get rid of the tumor itself, through surgery or radiation (or both). However, the cancer process has ways of spreading and starting new tumor sites in other parts of the body (the stem cells that started the mess manage to copy themselves and find ways to travel to other areas in the body, via lymph nodes or the blood stream; they then start new tumor sites).

That is where chemotherapy comes in. Chemo is basically a poison that travels throughout the body looking for as-yet undetected sites where the fast cell reproduction process is just starting (although there are local forms of chemo targeted specifically against a known tumor area, as to stop its growth process or kill any left-behind cancer cells not excised by surgery or radiation). Chemo drugs are designed to hunt for and kill any cell that is reproducing itself (which causes all the nasty side-effects, i.e. it also takes down non-cancer cells that are normally dividing).

The public is generally quite impressed with doctors and the whole medical establishment, given how much the medical experts need to know about the complex processes of the body. But sometimes, when you look at their approaches to disease and how those approaches often backfire, you see that our doctors still have a long way to go in appreciating just how complex a system the human body is.

How does this relate to cancer and chemotherapy? Well, that article in The Scientist that I mentioned regarding stem cells and cancer . . . at the end, almost as a side thought, the author states that research is starting to indicate that chemotherapy not only doesn’t kill cancer-driving stem cells, it actually spurs their production!!! Quote:

Although chemotherapy is still considered to be the most effective treatment for many cancers, the drugs may act on a tumor’s surrounding tissue in a way that spurs the production of more stem cells. In fact, increases in CSC [cancer stem cell] numbers have been observed in tumors after chemo or radiation. These treatments can create inflammation in the tissue surrounding the tumor as well as hypoxia, or loss of oxygen, which activates Wnt signaling. Inflammatory mediators such as IL-8, IL-6, and Wnt signaling spur CSCs to self-renew or increase in number, thus driving tumor growth.

So — it may be possible that chemo does almost as much bad as it does good, if the cancer stem cell theory is correct. (It is still more of a theory than an accepted medical fact, although research is piling up behind it.) Or at least in some cases.

I’m not a doctor or a medical expert, and I don’t think I have cancer (KNOCK ON WOOD!!!); but I know enough to say that in the end, the body’s own defense system, i.e. the immune system, will need to be bolstered in order to fully cure cancer. Perhaps chemo will always be needed to stop any tiny new growths that can’t otherwise be detected by our x-rays or CAT scans or protein tests. But something will also need be done to get the immune system to recognize and go after the cancer stem cells that might proliferate after a round of chemo. I.e., something along the lines of a vaccine, so as to root out those little cancer stem cells that would otherwise lay low for a few years and then start the whole cancer process again once the body is regaining its strength.

In the mean time — I believe that doctors and the whole medical establishment need to eat some crow and show a bit more humility. For the past 100 years or so, they have taken pride in the cures they bring about by introducing something external to the body, e.g. a knife, a drug, an x-ray or other radiation beam, etc.

But from here, they are going to need to “go internal”, learn how to make the body do just a little better what it otherwise knows how to do. The next medical revolution may well be held up until the whitecoats of today adopt a more humble attitude and a more respectful posture toward the body’s own healing processes.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:13 pm      

  1. Jim, You’ve hit a nerve in me. I’m not a medical expert, but I have had cancer, and it has returned once at least. (I’m not sure about a second return as I’m ignoring the whole thing at this point; I just don’t care any more.) But I DO have some things to comment on this point you make regarding doctors, radiation, and may I add pharmaceutical companies. Then too about the stem cell thing.

    First about the doctors: Over my lifetime I’ve had several coming-close-to-death problems. (Obviously at this point, I’ve made it through; sometimes I’ve wondered why, but I have.) Now as to the doctors (especially with cancer and even other problems at times): I’ve been impressed with how close to God they must feel themselves to be. They take people down to death and bring them back. That must be a REAL high. I know I should be grateful to doctors for having kept me alive on more than one occasion, but somehow I’ve always noticed how, underneath it all, they are very impressed with themselves. I even had one doctor say about his surgery, “Wow! That’s beautiful work!” He was talking about his own surgery work on me. Somehow all I could think was, boy that must be a really big high for you. Close to God-feeling, I’d say. I even had one doctor (some long years ago) become quite angry with me because I wasn’t grateful enough for his surgery.

    As a result, I have these mixed feelings about doctors. Yes, they do wonderful things for people. But I wonder: Should I simply have been allowed to die normally? Would that have been the better route to take?

    As to chemotherapy and radiation when it comes to cancer: Again, I have serious misgivings. I once had a doctor, as he was just about to start a 3 day process of radiation that kept me semi-quarantined (stay away from ALL people for a minimum of 3 days; once I got out, stay away without 3 yards of people for a month) say to me: Oh, by the way, you could get leukemia from this. My immediate response was that my sister had recently died from that same leukemia; what were the chances of my getting it then? The doctor had no answer, only stunned silence; all involved couldn’t WAIT to get away from me as fast as possible. And I was left to deal with the radiation until it wore off. My considered opinion is that chemotherapy (which too often takes one down to death only to bring one back) is just not worth it. Some people may choose it; I respect their choice. But for me—and it may be at this time in my life? No, I don’t think so; definitely not any more. And as to the doctors? As I said before: It must be wonderful to be like God.

    As to stem cell treatment: Amazing that stem cell may grow new organs; some may attack only the cancer cells. If they can get something that attacks only the cancer cells, that has a much less “going down into death” aspect to it, it sounds interesting to me. Perhaps it would work. I DO think that there needs to be much more study done on this problem (instead of simply putting our head in the sand and refusing to deal with it as some politicians seem to want to do). Who knows what side effects may yet arise from using stem cells for various treatments.

    Then again, I recently heard that the diabetes drug, Metformin (Glucophage—not sure which is the brand and which is the generic, but I think I may be right here) has been found to prevent (notice PREVENT, not CURE) several cancers, among them colon, pancreatic, (two that I can remember) and some other cancers. Problem is: The pharmaceutical companies really aren’t interested in using this drug for cancer treatment—-or even cancer prevention–as it’s been around for years and the drug companies will not make much money off it.

    Oh! There you have it: So cancer treatment in the end boils down to how much money the pharmaceutical companies will make. How very humane, how very concerned they are about people’s lives. How very much easier it would be to PREVENT cancer. But then there also would not be the “God-like wonder” for doctors either, if they simply handed out a pill that’s been around for years and it turned out that people just never GOT cancer—-somewhat like polio nowadays. (Wouldn’t that be a wonder! No one getting cancer in the first place any more.)

    I say wouldn’t it be amazing if a pill that’s been around for years, that likely has already a large group of people who could be traced and studied regarding cancer prevention would prove to be cancer PREVENTATIVE! But then the doctors wouldn’t have the God-like wonder coming from the patients boosting their egos and neither would the pharmaceutical companies make much money. Not much incentive there for the powers that be when it comes to cancer treatment. As I say, you’ve hit a nerve here in me. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 13, 2012 @ 10:56 am

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