The “Magic Bullet” That Could Rid the World of Cancer
We’ve been looking for a magic bullet to win the war on cancer for as long as modern medicine has existed…
The term “magic bullet” dates back to the father of cancer chemotherapy, Paul Ehrlich.
Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his work in immunology. However, his early work was in tissue staining.
Staining tissue to study cells led him to believe that a “magic bullet” could be created that might be useful for selectively destroying pathogens.
One stain Ehrlich worked with was called methylene blue. He found it particularly useful for studying the structures inside the brain.
However, he also found that methylene blue was potentially a treatment for malaria —a disease that has killed hundreds of millions over the centuries.
The discovery got Ehrlich thinking of an idea to treat disease…
Ehrlich’s theory was elegant: If some chemicals could selectively stain only certain types of tissues or bacteria, then why couldn’t a chemical be devised that would only selectively kill certain kinds of cells or pathogens while leaving healthy cells alone?
His ideas helped lay the conceptual foundation for new chemicals that killed parasites and pathogens.
He called it chemotherapy.
Because of their malignant behavior of cancer cells, it was thought that there might be something different about these cells that made them amenable to a “magic bullet” type of therapy.
Studies of people accidentally exposed to chemical weapons in World War II showed that, indeed, cancer cells did respond differently to toxins when compared with healthy cells.
That discovery sent big, government-funded science off to the races to find new cures — the very same sort of “big science” Ehrlich helped pioneer during his career.
The search for new drugs intensified when President Nixon declared a “war on cancer” in 1971 and upped government funding toward finding a cure.
The war on cancer received a new boost earlier this year when President Obama called for increased funding to improve survival.
But despite the many billions already spent, no definitive cures have been found.
Cancer is the result of a complex suite of malfunctions that hijack a cell’s basic functions. Some of these malfunctions make the genetic code inside of cancer cells unstable — meaning they can rapidly evolve resistance to a therapy.
A patient seems cured… but a few cancer cells survive and the disease comes back. When the patient is retreated with the original drug, it no longer works… because the new cancer cells come from drug-resistant parents.
And yet… that doesn’t mean we need to lose hope.
Over time, cancer has become more and more survivable. Every year, and with every new therapy, it gets a little bit better. We’ve reached a point where some kinds of cancer are highly survivable.
With others, however, we still have much work to do.
Recently, the fight in the war on cancer just took a small step forward.
Precision medicine is an extension of Ehrlich’s original ideas about designing a potent but selective chemical to take out a cancer cell.
Precision medicine harnesses the knowledge we have about the human genome.
These ideas were completely unknown in Ehrlich’s time. Today, we can analyze a patient’s genome by reading the data stored on her DNA.
Furthermore, we can get a sample of a patient’s cancer and do the same thing.
With that knowledge, we can get a lot more specific!
We can tailor a therapy that takes into account the patient’s own genomic makeup… and even select a cancer-fighting tool based on a mutation in her cancer cells.
So keep your eyes open…
Precision medicine is just beginning…and it could be the “magic bullet” we’ve been hoping for.
To a bright future,