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Fighting the new war against cancer

The New Straits Times, October 21, 2001

By Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

LET'S call a truce on the subject of destructive and sickening wars. Instead, let us talk about war of the healing and non-violent kind, a war that saves humankind rather than destroying it, a war on cancer.

In Malaysia, 95 new cases of the disease are diagnosed each day, according to the Minister of Health recently (NST, Oct 8). Cancer is one of the leading causes of death and morbidity in the country.

The rate of incidence is estimated at 150 per 100,000 of population or about 35,000 new cases a year. "These figures show an increase of nearly 50 per cent in nine years and the number of patients are expected to increase as a result of the progressive aging of the population, adverse lifestyles, changes in the environment and also better case detection and reporting," the Minister said. Clearly this is a war that must be fought by all Malaysians, indeed the world over.

In the light of this event, one optimistic note in the fight is the recent news that three cancer researchers are being awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. They are R. Timothy Hunt and Sir Paul M. Nurse of Britain, and Leland H. Hartwell of US. Together they will be receiving the Prize on Dec 10 to mark the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896.

Reportedly, their scientific breakthrough focused on the "molecular elements that control cell division", an important consideration in the development of cancer cells.

It provides vital information on how cells control their division in the process of growth to replace the older worn-out cells.

This in fact happens all the time to millions of cells in the human body and it normally takes place in a systematic and well controlled manner to supplement growth.

But when cell division goes out of control and turns haywire a cancerous tissue may be formed, at times into deadly tumours. The recent exciting discovery will give some insights as to what goes wrong when cells become cancerous and then begin to reproduce unchecked.

This understanding may "in the long term open up new possibilities for cancer treatment" or indeed other degenerative diseases as well. In other words, with the new knowledge and understanding of the division process, science is closer to finding out why cells become cancerous, which could lead to a better therapeutic intervention.

On another level, more than 100 genes were found to specifically regulate the process of cell cycle, initiating cell growth.

It duplicates the DNA in its nucleus and starts to divide, and then new cells produce repeat the cell cycle. The process of division thus continues.

One of the genes identified (called "start") is responsible for triggering the cellular reproductive process. A list of all the important genes claimed to implicated in controlling cell division has been discovered by Hartwell over a 25-year period.

Allegedly, the finding provides invaluable clues in interpreting and using today's gene-sequence data. It in addition forms a logical framework to clarify "how these genes co-operate and work together to control cell division".

Based on Hartwell's findings, Nurse is able to find another gene that "regulates different phases of the cell productive cycle". Hunt on the other hand discovered (in the early 1980s) the first "cyclin" molecule, a protein that is formed and broken down during the course of the cell cycle.

It is regarded as the key to the overall control in the process of cell reproduction, especially in understanding of "how chromosomal instability develops in cells as the result of defective control of the cell cycle." Given all these "a lot better drugs and with a lot less side effects" have been predicted by many including Hartwell.

Notwithstanding this optimism, there is a "scary" side to the story, namely the misuse of the research, especially as new therapeutic agents are made available in an already "pill-popping society", as lamented by Hartwell himself.

Despite such possible scares, the benefits that could accrue from the discoveries have enormous implications for the health of citizens around the world. Indeed the benefit is not limited to biomedical research but will expand to other fields.

Fittingly, in its citation for the award, the Swedish Karolinska Institutet stated: "These fundamental discoveries have great impact on all aspects of cell growth." It further acknowledges: "The findings in the cell cycle field are about to be applied to tumour diagnostics" which may have implication for cancer therapy. Clinical trials of products based on the findings are expected to be on the way.

The war for new and innovative knowledge against scourages that has long plagued humankind will continue to underpin the search for future treatment.

This is one war that definitely will have the support of all fortunately, without having to subscribe to the bigoted doctrine of "us or them".

Recommended site: http://www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates/2001/press.html 

* This article is dedicated to a colleague, Dr I.G. Caunter of the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, who died on Oct 18 from cancer. Dr Caunter is sadly missed by all at the university.

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