January 18, 2007

Silver Bullet for Cancer?

We know that effective cancer treatments are coming -- nanobots singling out cancer cells and destroying them with tiny laser beams, gene therapies calibrated right down to the specific DNA sequence of the patient, etc. It's all very exciting. But then there's this:

It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their “immortality”. The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.

It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.

Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.

DCA works by switching the mitochondria back on inside cancer cells. Deprived of oxygen, cancer cells survive by an alternative energy-supplying process called glycolysis. This bypasses the normal metabolic process governed by the mitochondria. Unfortunately, the mitochondrial process not only supplies a cell with energy, it determines the cell's lifespan. When a cell adopts this workaround fuel strategy that bypasses the mitochondria, it becomes an "immortal" cancer cell. By switching the mitochondria back on in such cells, DCA ensures that they die a natural, and very welcome, death.


Source: Newscientist

There are a couple of downsides:

1. Patients who have used the drug while being treated for the metabolic disorders for which it was originally developed have experienced "pain, numbness and gait disturbances." All of which I assume most folks would gladly swap for cancer any day of the week.

2. Because the drug is not patented and is very cheap to produce, there isn't much of a business case for the drug companies to continue this research and bring the cancer treatment to market. The New Scientist article suggests that the way forward may be through "clinical trials funded by charities, universities and governments."

Say, this might be a good project for the Gates Foundation or some such. In any case, I don't see how that second obstacle can stand in the way for long if this drug is truly as effective as these preliminary results indicate.

Via GeekPress.

UPDATE: Via InstaPundit, here's some more good news on the war on cancer:

Cancer Deaths Decline For Second Straight Year

The number of Americans who died of cancer has dropped for a second straight year, marking a milestone in the war on the disease, officials said yesterday.

More than 3,000 fewer Americans died from cancer in 2004 than in 2003, according to statistics analyzed by the American Cancer Society, indicating that a much smaller decline in cancer deaths a year earlier probably was not a fluke but instead marked the start of a trend.

I appears that the bulk of the credit goes to the fact that there are fewer smokers and that screening procedures have improved (and are used more frequently.) Excellent!