A Brave New World of Medicine

A Brave New World
By Edison McDaniels, MD surgeonwriter.com | nonfiction

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So, imagine this.

A malignant brain tumor. Fatal? Maybe not in the near future.

You, or a loved one, aren’t feeling well. Maybe it’s a persistent shortness of breath. Or perhaps a nagging ache in your thigh. Or how about a headache that just won’t go away. Or you get up to piss one morning and there’s blood in your urine. How freaky would that be?

Probably you try to ignore these symptoms for awhile. The human mind has an amazing ability to cordon off that which it least wants to deal with. Eventually—days, weeks, even a few months—you decide to see a doctor. You don’t want too, it’s an interruption to your life after all, but you can’t ignore that something is wrong any longer.

“Cancer,” your doctor says.

The word hits like a piece of sky falling upon you. At once, your world is not what it was even a moment before. It’s not just a piece of the sky, it’s a rupture of everything you’ve ever imagined. It’s a near complete erasure of your dreams. What, you wonder, does your future hold? More to the point, do you actually have a future?

That’s a goddamn scary scenario, one that arises for thousands of folks every year.

In the pre-antibiotic era, roughly before WWII, it was infection that elicited that response. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge’s 16 year-old son died of sepsis from an infected toe (the President later wrote “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him…”). Today, such a death is near unthinkable and certainly, in the developed world anyway, rare. Death from infection has not been completely wiped out—and never will be—but the average joe doesn’t live in fear of it and the power and impact of modern antibiotics is immense.

If infection was the scourge of the early twentieth century, cancer is the scourge of our time.

A recent development in medical research has the power to change that. Researchers have managed to grow a tiny beating heart in a petri dish on the lab bench: READ THIS

Envision a future where all sorts of human tissues are grown up in the lab. Not just cells, but 3D organs with structure and function. We could imagine all sorts of uses for such tissues—ending the shortage of organs for organ transplantation is the most obvious—but think about this: if researchers can grow normal cells, they can also grow cancer cells.

Which means they can study them. Living, human cancer cells in 3D, acting and behaving just as they might in vivo, inside the human body.

Wow.

Cancer is a disease of the cell’s regulatory machinery, changed in severe ways so that growth is no longer checked. Like water spilling over a cofferdam, cancer cells just keep on dividing and dividing and dividing until they overwhelm the body. Some cancers grow faster than others, but unchecked growth is the hallmark of every cancer.
In order to treat cancer, physicians target these wildly growing cells with toxins of various sorts—and hope the toxins will be less poisonous to the body’s normal cells. Less toxic is relative of course. What these toxins (chemotherapy and radiation both) actually target is the machinery of growth. What this means is that only dividing cells are affected. This includes not just the cancer cells, but any normal dividing cells as well—and the more rapidly dividing a particular group of cells is (we call these like-minded groups of cells tissues, which commingle in turn into organs, like kidneys, liver, the heart, lungs, etc), the more affected they will be by the cancer treatment. This is why cancer patients lose their hair and develop diarrhea—hair grows fast, as does the lining of the intestines, which is constantly sloughing and replenishing.

 

Calvin, Jr., standing next to his father 9 days before his death from infection.

Calvin, Jr., standing next to his father 9 days before his death from infection.

Researchers spend billions of dollars a year looking for drugs that are relatively less toxic to normal cells and tissues and more toxic to cancer. But what if your doctor could take a piece of your cancer, grow it up in a lab, and then rapidly subject it to many and various drugs—toxins—alongside normal cells?

They could then determine not just the most effective drug to treat your cancer, but the least toxic one for the rest of your body. And with that knowledge, they could use the target drugs at the best doses to provide the most effect at the least risk. They would be killing the cancer and saving the person.

And that folks, is how you prop up the sky.

 

 

Read The Crucible today.

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