Better Than Therapy

My father died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at 49.  Although the initial prognosis was positive, treatments of the day, 15 years ago, were unsuccessful.  Unfortunately, tumours in his bowel grew while he was being treated, and it got to the point where there were no more options.  Cancer treatment has often been a balance between killing the tumour without quite killing the person.  So it’s with a very real human understanding that I, and many of us approach the ideas about cancer and treatment therapies, and the possibilities of targeting defective tissue and protecting healthy tissue. 
Understanding the biological basis of cancerous ‘events’ as Dave Ackerley, gene therapy researcher at Victoria University refers to them, the more we can target defective cells that grow into tumours.  These cells don’t behave as healthy cells do; they over-replicate, they grow, they create tumours that prevent the body from functioning as it is supposed to such as tumours that restrict the bowel. But the more we know about tumours the more we can use their characteristics to develop potential treatment methods.   Tumours function in hypoxic environments, and there are viruses and bacteria that also thrive in hypoxic environments such as clostridium.  These invaders can be developed (mutated) in the lab by methods of directed evolution to function in useful ways, by carrying and releasing enzymes in hypoxic conditions that then sensitise the tumour to further treatments.  Developments of these directed space invaders are alongside the development of better prodrugs that are designed to be non-toxic to human tissue but become toxic when in contact with certain enzymes – enter Ackerleys mutated nitro reductase.  Well that’s the plan anyway.  It’s a few years away from helping patients such as my father, but I know for sure he would have jumped at the chance to participate in clinical trials – not only for his own potential benefit but others.
Cancer is a disease that seems to attract a lot of very emotive language that almost personifies cancer.   We talk about ‘fighting’ cancer.  We think about it in sinister terms and use words such as rampant, ravage, riddled.  Cancer is special in this way – we don’t really ‘battle’ heart disease.  For many without a decent understanding of biology and molecules (ie me), the idea of mutating viruses and enzymes for cancer treatment is up there with human cloning, or nano-robots as some sort of science fiction premise for a great movie.  Enter Spiderman’s psychotic professor. Fortunately, Dave Ackerly is no such character.  He is easy to listen to and understand, thoughtful and empathetic, and most of all uber excited about his field of scientific research.  It’s so much easier to learn from people who are excited about their work.  So this course has been better than therapy for me. I have had a mechanism to think about my father and his ‘battle’ with cancer in a productive, hopeful way. 

(All biological understanding is from D. Ackerley, Scie211, Module 2, Lectures 1-4, Genes & Gene Therapy 2013/2014)


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