Ever since the National Cancer Act became law in 1971, the United States has made the war on cancer a priority. We now know that there are many different reasons why some cells grow uncontrollably and take the lives of more than 1500 Americans every day. In the decades since, there have been a few standing ovations. But a new type of treatment is already causing a shift in how doctors treat cancer.
Much of how we look at cancer treatment today has to do with advancements in molecular biology, a branch of science that looks deep within a cell's inner workings. For one thing, technology has become more sophisticated allowing scientists to map a cell's DNA. When DNA gets damaged, the recipes for chemical signals can get sabotaged and that can make cells misbehave, grow out of control and edge out healthy cells.
Honing in on the unique molecular aspects of cancer cells is at the heart of an amazing new concept in cancer treatment, "targeted therapy". And a growing number of cancer specialists believe that this approach is the future of cancer treatment.
Targeted therapies are different from traditional cancer therapies. Chemotherapy kills all rapidly dividing cells, healthy or not. The drugs coarse through the blood stream and kill cells that are actively growing and dividing, a hallmark feature of cancer cells, but also one of some healthy cells too. That is why people who receive chemotherapy experience side effects such as hair loss, nausea and gastrointestinal symptoms because the cells of these systems are constantly turning over and dividing making them susceptible to chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy, while a little more precise, also inadvertently kills healthy cells. And even though the radioactive beam is sighted directly above the tumor cells, the beam doesn’t distinguish healthy cells from cancerous ones.
Targeted therapies however are very specific about where they go. They are designed to zero in on a potentially vulnerable aspect of a cancer cell's life. Researchers study features of cancer cells that either don't exist in a healthy cell or are particularly unique to a specific cancer.
Targeted drug therapy can block proteins, enzymes and receptors that fuel cell growth. They can modify mechanisms that turn cell growth on and off, or cause cancer cells to wither away. Still other targets mimic the body's own immune system as antibodies that recognize and kill something that doesn't belong.