Friday, April 24, 2009


Cancer is on my mind these days. As this news article in the New York Times explains, success rates are high when it's detected early.

The article also explains that when not caught early, the disease is extremely difficult to treat and, unfortunately, "cancer investigators say, the more they study cancer, the more complex it seems."

The comic at right explains the complexity in layman's terms. It's by Jorge Cham, creator of a blog called Piled Higher and Deeper who was inspired by contact with cancer researchers after giving a talk at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center last year.

Click the image to read the comic.

Here's the beginning of a more technical explanation by a famous medical scientist. As you'd expect, it goes into the matter in much greater detail, but it's more free of medical terminology than other writings on the subject.
How Cancer Arises (pdf) by Robert A. Weinberg

How cancer develops is no longer a mystery. During the past two decades, investigators have made astonishing progress in identifying the deepest bases of the process — those at the molecular level. These discoveries are robust: they will survive the scrutiny of future generations of researchers, and they will form the foundation for revolutionary approaches to treatment. No one can predict exactly when therapies targeted to the molecular alterations in cancer cells will find wide use, given that the translation of new understanding into clinical practice is complicated, slow and expensive. But the effort is now under way.

In truth, the term “cancer” refers to more than 100 forms of the disease. Almost every tissue in the body can spawn malignancies; some even yield several types. What is more, each cancer has unique features. Still, the basic processes that produce these diverse tumors appear to be quite similar. For that reason, I will refer in this article to “cancer” in generic terms, drawing on one or another type to illustrate the rules that seem to apply universally.

The 30 trillion cells of the normal, healthy body live in a complex, interdependent condominium, regulating one another’s proliferation. Indeed, normal cells reproduce only when instructed to do so by other cells in their vicinity. Such unceasing collaboration ensures that each tissue maintains a size and architecture appropriate to the body’s needs. Cancer cells, in stark contrast, violate this scheme; they become deaf to the usual controls on proliferation and follow their own internal agenda for reproduction. They also possess an even more insidious property — the ability to migrate from the site where they began, invading nearby tissues and forming masses at distant sites in the body. Tumors composed of such malignant cells become more and more aggressive over time, and they become lethal when they disrupt the tissues and organs needed for the survival of the organism as a whole.

This much is not new. But over the past 20 years, scientists have uncovered a set of basic principles that govern the development of cancer. We now know that the cells in a tumor descend from a common ancestral cell that at one point — usually decades before a tumor becomes palpable — initiated a program of inappropriate reproduction. Further, the malignant transformation of a cell comes about through the accumulation of mutations in specific classes of the genes within it. These genes provide the key to understanding the processes at the root of human cancer. . . .

I saw the NYT article in a section of the paper's innovative aggregator called Blogrunner. The section is The Annotated New York Times. Here's a smattering of its current contents:
The New York Times... Remixed.

In Long Drive to Cure Cancer, Advances Have Been Elusive

Richard M. Nixon pledged to cure cancer by 1976. EurekAlert   Science Blog   Reuters Health eLine   Medical News Today   FuturePundit   Medical News Today   Medical News Today

On Climate Issue, Industry Ignored Its Scientists

A document shows that a fossil fuels industry group ran an aggressive campaign against an idea its own scientists called irrefutable: a link between heat-trapping gases and climate change. Medical News Today   PLANetizen: Front Page   Medical News Today   Rising Hegemon   ENN   The Huffington Post   Synthstuff   EurekAlert   Science Blog   DeSmogBlog - Clearing the PR Pollution that Clouds Climate Scien

My Tortured Decision

A former F.B.I. agent who questioned Abu Zubaydah in 2002 says the suspected terrorist provided important intelligence under traditional interrogation methods. Talking Points Memo   Fox News Channel   Fraters Libertas   Emptywheel   Ta-Nehisi Coates

Interrogations' Effectiveness May Prove Elusive

Starkly opposing narratives have arisen about what, if anything, was gained by the C.I.A.'s use of physical pressure to intimidate Qaeda operatives. Stop The ACLU   Wonkette   The Agonist   TalkLeft   CHARMING, JUST CHARMING   The Huffington Post   Wizbang   Sweetness & Light   PrairiePundit
Note: I'm asserting fair use in quoting from NYT Annotated for review purposes.

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