THE year 2012 will be marked in scientific circles as the year that we made the most progress in cancer research as the first glimmer of hope for a cure is on the horizon.
The old paradigm of how we think about cancer will have to be dramatically reexamined. Cancer is really a disease of the genes. A gene is just a collection of chemicals. It is a thing, a purely material substance without a will, a soul, or purpose. It mechanically replicates itself with chance variations occurring in the copying process
In the 1960's, Watson and Crick discovered the DNA and the RNA molecule. We know that it takes about 40 years between discovery of a scientific act and its application to the market.
In the old paradigm, we think of benign and cancerous or malignant growths. The malignant growths can, of course, spread all over the body -- the so called secondary growth. And there are many ways we think this can be achieved, for example spread by the blood stream, by the lymphatic's, etc.
However, about 10 years ago it was discovered that by analysing the DNA and the RNA in a tumour, there were distinct markers that would show you if the lesion was malignant and would form secondary. To put it another way, once you saw those genetic markers you knew that this cancer had spread.
The genetic fingerprinting of cancers leads us to a better understanding of how these cancers would spread.
We all remember Bob Marley and the cancer which killed him was a malignant melanoma.
Well, about 10 years ago at a lecture at the American Academy of Dermatology, the new research on melanoma came out. They had discovered that a certain cell, the lymphocyte found in our blood, was important in controlling the cancer, and that there was a sub group of these lymphocytes called Killer Lymphocytes which were absolutely critical.
Essentially, what they did was to take some blood from a patient with a malignant melanoma and spin off the white blood cells. They would further separate off the killer lymphocytes and then put these in a dish with some artificial medium to grow and multiply them. Vastly increased in numbers, they were then injected back into the veins of the patient with cancer, and the malignant melanoma lesions disappeared overnight.
In fact they could show you pictures of the tumors disappearing by the hour and the measurements to prove it. The patients were cancer-free and remained so for about three to four months and then the cancers came back bigger and more aggressive than before.
So it was back to the drawing board and some bright spark realised that there was some other factor which was necessary for the Killer Lymphocytes to work effectively.
He decided that this must be Interlukin — a substance which is produced when tissues are damaged.
So the experiments began to inject cultured killer lymphocytes and Interleukin 2 into the blood stream of patients with cancer. Now in a twist, the killer lymphocytes were infected by a weakened strain of the HIV virus.
Well, last week we had the first public announcement of the results. A girl with leukaemia was free of all disease after seven years. Prostate and breast cancers are next and the world of cancer treatments will never be the same again.
In fact, it would seem that the new killer lymphocytes are now going to protect the body from ever getting a cancer
Novartis, the drug firm, has already pledged US$2 million for further research, because the company realises that although these are early days yet, if they do come up with a way to cure the cancers with this technology and a cancer vaccine that works, they will be in the money forever.
We are at the start of a new and glorious world which just may be cancer-free.
For further information please google Cancer research and killer lymphocytes.
Dr Persadsingh is a skin specialist. He is the author of Acne in Black Women, the Hair in Black Women and Eczema in kids of colour.