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The Basics of Cancer Research as its done Today



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Cancer is a disease in which abnormal cells grow at a fast rate, multiplying uncontrollably and invading other tissues.  This disease has become one of the major killers in the world, affecting different parts of the body such as lung, breast, colon, and kidney to name a few.  According to a statistical report from American Cancer Society, in the United States alone, one in four deaths occur because of it.  Now with so many scientists involved in cancer research, recent progressions have been made and new technologies and tools are being used to gain insight in understanding the genetics of cancer.

In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, cancer research was limited in resources.  Scientists had only begun to understand the human body through autopsies and the emergence of surgeries.  John Hunter, a famous surgeon, believed that cancers could be cured by surgically removing the tumor if it had not yet affected other tissues.  Hence the classic operation of mastectomy was developed.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century when scientific oncology arose.  The use of microscopes studied cancer tissues.  This process was called pathology and had provided a better understanding to cancer morphology and the damage done inside the body.  Pathologists were then able to inform surgeons if tumors had been completely removed.

There are now many new advanced technologies that have stemmed from the collaborative work of scientists from all over the world.  One federally funded program that involves the work of many researchers is called The Cancer Genome Atlas.  The program was developed in 2005 to create a molecular mapping of gene and protein interactions inside a cell.  It serves as a library of information, documenting genomic alterations of most types of cancer.  Scientists could then use this information to guide them through their research and update any new findings to the atlas, sharing their work with others in the field.

Of the many technologies and tools, there is one that is designed to be an early detector of cancer—biomarker.  A biomarker is a traceable substance used as a parameter to detect and track proteins involved in the progression of cancer.  Scientists use this to measure the cancer through blood, tissues, and other biological samples.

Another method used to study proteins in a different manner is proteomics.  Instead of tracking proteins, proteomics study the way a protein has been modified.  This is usually done through mass spectrometry, a tool that analyzes the structure and function of a protein.  When characterizing a protein in this manner, scientists can understand its role on a molecular level.  Thus understanding this could help elucidate the cancer better.

Alternatively through drug discovery, scientists use their understanding of the biological structure and mechanism of drugs to treat some types of cancer.  Drugs are sometimes produced from a protein or an antibody, which acts as an inhibitor to a target.  The target is usually another protein that may be involved in cell proliferation of cancer cells.  When the mechanism of a drug is well understood, it can be optimized and models are developed so that the drug can be tested.  These experiments are performed in the lab where the effects of the drug on isolated cancer cells are assessed.  When scientists determine the best conditions of the drug, further testing is necessary.  The effects of the drug are later confirmed through animal testing and human clinical trials.

A quick and convenient method used to observe the cytotoxic effects of a drug on cancer cells, prior to animal testing and clinical trials, is cell proliferation assay.  This method allows for cell survival to be quantified after being treated with a drug at varying dosages for a period of time.  At the end of the incubation time, a reagent is added to the cells in which a dye is incorporated and bound to the DNA.  This bond then creates a fluorescence intensity that can be measured and quantified from an appropriate machine, providing information and insight to the drug’s performance.

With only pathology as an earlier method to study and treat cancer, current research methods prove vast.  Cancer research has evolved, and the list of tools and technologies appear to be growing more with time, allowing future generations of cancer research to continue finding cures for this well known disease.



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More about this author: Angie Deptula

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