The key development that has transformed scientists’ strategy for battling cancer has been the recent discovery that tumours are far more genetically complex than previously realised. “By analysing cancer tissue samples from patients we have found there is an enormous genetic difference between cells found within a single tumour,” said Professor Martin Gore of London’s Royal Marsden hospital. “It was a surprise.”
Chris Jones of The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, agreed. “Until recently, it was assumed cancer cells were more or less identical clones of each other. We have found this is not true. Cells, taken from a single tumour from one person, can have many different genetic alterations within them. This presents us with a huge challenge in trying to develop treatments, though in the long term our new awareness should also provide us with an opportunity to create powerful anti-cancer drug regimes.”
For most of the past 40 years, cancers have been treated by surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy. This last technique involves the use of cytotoxic drugs which can kill cells that they encounter. By carefully adjusting doses of these drugs, doctors have been able to kill off cancer cells while leaving normal cells unaffected – in many cases. But the considerable toxicity of chemotherapy drugs means they can only be administered for a few weeks, which limits their tumour-killing potential.
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