Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication

People ask me several questions on various issues of science . Apart from giving  answers to these questions to the people who ask them, I also write on the issues so that others too can find answers useful.

Recently a thirteen year old girl has asked me this question " Why is the incidence of cancer rising in the world now?".  Her question came into existence because it seems her grandmother had been diagnosed with  breast cancer and the little girl's mind was disturbed as a result of this and several questions originated in her 'little box' regarding the disease.

The reasons I gave the girl for the increase in cancer cases are:

1. We live longer now than in olden days because of better medical care. The incidence of cancer has risen enormously over the past 100 years, because of the enormous improvement in health during that time.  Cancer is a disease mainly of the elderly, and as population longevity improves, cancer incidence inevitably increases.  When you keep people alive into their 70s and 80s and 90s, their chances of getting cancer go way up. So by extending human life spans, civilization unveiled cancer.

Cancer is a disease of our genes – the bits of DNA code that hold the instructions for all of the microscopic machinery inside our cells. Over time, mistakes accumulate in this code. The longer we live, the more time we have for errors to build up. And so, as time passes, our risk of developing cancer goes up, as we accumulate more of these faults in our genes. Genetic changes like mutations occur more frequently too in genes when people get older and some of them can cause malignancy in cells.

2. Better diagnostic methods and tools. Probably some people died of cancer  in ancient times too (3). But then nobody knew with certainty that it was cancer that was responsible for their deaths. Now we have quick, easy and effective ways to diagnose it. With routine cancer screening, rates go up significantly. Therefore, we know why people are suffering and can start treating them when once cancer is detected.

3. There  are far more people today so there are also more cancers. The increase is proportional to population growth.

4. Life-style changes. Diet and food quality people choose, more smoking and using pollution-causing products are reasons good enough to cause concerns. Obesity: we now have more obese population than earlier times which raises the risk of developing a number of cancers.

5. More virulent microbial strains like HPV, or human papillomavirus that cause cancer.

6. Indiscriminate use of carcinogenic chemicals and products in our daily lives. Exposure to carcinogens has been scientifically demonstrated to cause cancer (1).

But one need not worry when once one is detected with the dreaded disease. Half of all cancer patients now survive at least 10 years or more (2). Ensuring cancer patients are diagnosed at the earliest possible stage of their disease, when treatment is more likely to be successful, is a key priority now. Treatment methods that are getting better and better (4, 5,6) as time goes by are making the lives of patients more worth living and living a long life.






5. Pioneer new cancer treatments everyday through research.

6. Find better ways to treat cancer through clinical trials

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Replies to This Discussion


Errant gene turns cells into mobile cancer factories

A single stem cell has the potential to generate an animal made of millions of different types of cells. Some cancers contain stem-like but abnormal cells that can act like mini factories to rapidly churn out not only more copies of themselves, but also variants that are able to better survive in the challenging and changing environments to which cancers are exposed. Worse still, these stem cell-like cancers can spread to other tissues in the body, causing metastasis.

Researchers at the Salk Institute demonstrated how a single master gene, called Sox10, controls if–and to what extent–cells turn into these potentially dangerous factories. This new understanding of Sox10 could help point the way to more efficient therapies for drug-resistant cancers.

“One of the problems with a cancer mass is that it isn’t uniform. You might think of it like the microclimates leading from the Salk Institute down to the beach: some areas have rain and lots of plants while others get sun and look like a desert. Just like plants adapting to different environments, the cancer cells do the same, making some sensitive and other resistant to treatments. We have to be able to confront this tumor heterogeneity to fight cancers more effectively,” says Geoffrey Wahl, professor of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the work, published September 10, 2015 in Cell Reports. “We’ve found that Sox10 is one type of master regulator able to unlock the cell fate door to enable cells to adopt different identities to adapt to different tumor microenvironments.”

For example, this stem cell-like ability is present in an aggressive form of the disease known as triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC lacks three of the most common targets for breast cancer therapy and makes up about 20 percent of breast cancers in the United States; it also has overactive levels of Sox10. Other labs have shown that high levels of Sox10 are also present in melanoma, another highly metastatic disease.

In the new work, the team looked for genes that were present at high levels in both normal mammary stem cells and breast cancer tissue. One gene that stood out was Sox10, which is part of a group of genes known to control how cells differentiate into mature tissues. Christopher Dravis, the lead author of the study, found that specialized mammary cells with the greatest ability to create different cell types, known as plasticity, had higher levels of Sox10 expression. If the team removed Sox10 from the cells, the cells lost that ability.

Aside from determining how powerful a factory these cells became, high levels of the Sox10’s protein in the right conditions caused a totally unexpected property to arise: the cells became mobile and invaded surrounding areas.

“We have functional evidence linking Sox10 to all of the most dangerous aspects of tumor progression–growth potential, plasticity and spreading, which indicates that Sox10 may be driving these same deadly functions in breast cancers,” says Dravis.

The group plans to test whether eliminating the function of Sox10 could be a way to fight the disease and block metastasis. “Our hope is that continued study of this critical gene will identify other signaling pathways we can inhibit to block the breadth of functions induced by Sox10 that appear to favor tumor progression,” says Dravis.

Another potential application, adds Wahl, is that Sox10 could act as a light bulb to help researchers see the cells that are beginning to move, acting as a faster test for metastatic breast cancer.

“This type of curiosity-driven science aims to understand the basic principles of how an organism is formed and then apply those findings to a very important disease,” says Wahl, who holds Salk’s Daniel and Martina Lewis Chair. “We hope everyday we can bring this work out of the lab to the clinic because it is the patient who we feel ultimately responsible to.”


Rare reasons why  people get cancer: 

  1. In England, they used to send small children up chimneys to clean them. These kids would be covered head to toe in soot and the British have a reputation for bathing once in 6 months or so. This resulted in these kids getting cancer on the scrotum.
  2. In Kashmir, it gets very cold in the winter. People would put some coal in a clay container (a kangri) and hug the kangri to keep warm. This led to cancers on the abdomen due to irritation of the skin by the hot kangri.
  3. In some places there is a tradition of reverse smoking, that is keeping the lighted end of cigarette in mouth.

    This has led to cancer of upper surface of the mouth(hard palate).

    eg, in South India(Srikakulam district is one such place).

  4. Teeth irritating (for several years) sides of cheeks could cause cancer.

Some more reasons: 

Some of the factors that may induce cancers of different tissues are:

  1. Mutagens/Carcinogens such as hazardous chemicals, tobbaco (90% lung cancer cases).
  2. Environmental Factors such as prolonged UV exposure.
  3. Alcohol use.
  4. Obesity.
  5. Dietary factors, including insufficient fruit and vegetable intake.
  6. Genetic factors
  7. Bacteria (Helicobactor Pylori) and Viruses [hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV) and some types of human papilloma virus (HPV)].
  8. Harmonal changes
  9. Immune system dysfunction.


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