Every year, more than 18 million people around the world are told, “You have cancer.” In the U.S., nearly half of all men and more than one-third of women will develop some kind of cancer during their lifetimes, and 600,000-plus die from it annually. Despite the billions of dollars and countless new treatments that have been thrown at it since President Richard M. Nixon declared “war” on the disease in 1971, cancer refuses to be beaten.
Why does it remain such a formidable foe? After all, it’s been known since Nixon’s day that unrepaired genetic damage can cause cells to grow uncontrollably, which is viewed as cancer’s root cause. But this understanding has not pointed the way to an obvious treatment. Research into cancer biology has revealed it to be one of the most complex and insidious human diseases for a variety of reasons.
First, cancer can be caused by any number of factors, from viral infections to exposure to carcinogenic chemicals to simple bad genetic luck. One patient’s lung cancer might be caused by an entirely different constellation of mutations than another’s, and a drug that targets a certain mutational profile benefits only a subset of patients. Furthermore, cancer cells often spontaneously develop new mutations, limiting the effectiveness of genetically targeted drugs.
Second, cancer is caused by malfunction of the body’s own cells, so it is hard to design drugs that will target only cancerous cells while sparing healthy ones.
Third, while genetic mutations can drive cancer formation, cancers can stop growing and remain dormant for years, suggesting that there are more factors at play than gene mutation alone.
And finally, cancer has a number of different “tricks” that allow it to hide from the body’s highly vigilant immune system, letting it grow undetected and unchecked until, often, it is too late.
Cancer treatment regimens through the 19th and 20th centuries were largely limited to an aggressive triumvirate of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, all of which carry traumatic side effects and can bring patients to the brink of death in the name of saving their lives. As our knowledge of the disease has grown more nuanced over the decades, a paradigm shift has happened in the field, centered on the recognition that attacking a complex disease with blunt tools is not the most effective approach. A surge of new therapeutic strategies—including immunotherapy, nanotechnology, and personalized medicine—is giving hope to patients for whom traditional treatments have failed and offering the potential of long-lasting cures.
Scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering with expertise in fields ranging from molecular cell biology and immunology to materials science, chemical engineering, mechanobiology, and DNA origami are at the forefront of several of these novel approaches. Their research, united by the common principle of emulating nature, has the potential to make existing treatments better, create new ones, and even prevent cancer from starting in the first place.
Image Credit: WYSS Institute