Cancer and the Beauty of Discovery

No.  Not that kind of cancer . . . © Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

No. Not that kind of cancer . . .
© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0


Technology is oft compared to a two-edged blade.  Usually just before some horrific cautionary tale about “science run amok”. No new technology in recent memory has sparked quite as much speculative fear as nanotechnology.  From real science fact of hypothetical “gray goo” – a term created to his own regret by nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler in his book “Engines of Creation” to describe self-replicating von Neumann machines – to the Mycora, a swarm of science fiction nanites that consumes and “rewrites” the entire inner solar system, forcing a struggling remnant of humanity to live underground on the cold moons of Jupiter in Wil McCarthy’s excellent novel “Bloom“, there are plenty of rational reasons to fear nanotechnology. The ability to craft at the molecular level is as close to directly programming the nature of reality as we as a species can imagine without using some pretty intense physics. It is a technology with a dark side that could potentially, unlike even the horrors of nuclear and chemical weapons, destroy the Earth in toto leaving not a stone behind as evidence of our Big Blue Marble.

But what of side of light?  What beauty can be worth such risk? How about a possible way to live with if not cure cancer? A way to make it easier to treat if nothing else?

To quote that (in)famous animated scientist Professor Hubert Farnsworth, “Good news, everybody!”

The BBC is reporting an interesting breakthrough in the treatment of cancer using nanotechnology. In a paper originally published in the journal Nature Materials, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology say they have designed nanofibres thinner than a human hair which cancers will “choose” to travel down.  Working with a particularly difficult-to-treat brain cancers (glioblastomas) known to have a tendency to spread inside the brain by traveling down nerves and blood vessels, the nanofibre technology mimics these natural channels cancerous cells use to move. Researcher Professor Ravi Bellamkonda compared the process to mass transit: “The cancer cells normally latch on to these natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain. By providing an attractive alternative fibre, we can efficiently move the tumours along a different path to a destination that we choose.”

In addition to the glioblastomas, this approach worked on a variety of different types of cancer in a Petri dish and animal studies showed that tumors could be drawn out of the brain and into an implanted toxic gel, killing the uncontrolled growth. As Bellamkonda summarizes to the BBC,”It’s a way of bringing the tumour to the drug, not the drug to the tumour.” The results are startling in actual scale as they are in their promise to save lives previously without hope. The size of the tumor was 93% smaller in rats fitted with “the cancer monorail” than in untreated rats. According to Bellakonda this works because “[y]ou can move a tumour along a path you specify and then kill it, it’s not creating extra tumor and the primary tumor actually shrinks.” He also suggested that controlling the growth of a tumor might be able to make cancer something people live with like other chronic conditions if it cannot be cured.  Another possible application is making cancer surgery easier. Normally in surgical treatment, a tumor and the surrounding tissue are removed, but this is especially a challenge in the brain where removing any unnecessary tissue could have severe consequences. The idea is that doctors might be able to move a tumor, essentially tricking it to migrate, to an area more easily operated on or one with less associated risks.

It is important to note that this cutting-edge research is at a very early stages and there need to be far more animal studies conducted before the technique is considered for human trials. As Dr. Emma Smith, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “[I]t’s still in its infancy and so far has only been tested in rats, so there is a long way to go before we know if it will be safe and effective as a cancer treatment.”

Sometimes discovery can be beautiful, even in promise.

Source: BBC, Wikipedia (various reference), Amazon

About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
This entry was posted in Biology, Chemistry, Nanotechnology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Cancer and the Beauty of Discovery

  1. Tony C. says:

    Very interesting, and not something I had heard of.

    A nanotech fibre doesn’t seem actively dangerous; it isn’t replicating itself.

    I have recently read of another approach (re-implementing an older approach) that is working on cancer too: Repeated serial infections, basically. Or actually triggering of the immune system with all the attendant fever, flu symptoms, etc, so you get over one and they give you another one, for months on end. Apparently (and contrary to dogma) the immune system can recognize and attack cancers, but many cancers manage to hide from the initial triggers of the immune system. But if something else triggers the immune system, the awakened immune system can recognize and attack the cancer.

    The approach was after a study of spontaneous remission in cancer patients, the researcher found that a very large percentage of them occurred shortly after an illness that knocked the patient on their butt; severe flu, food sickness, pneumonia, allergic reaction, etc. Then hypothesized that an immune system in overdrive, while dealing with the primary trigger, “noticed” and cleaned up the cancer while it was fighting the main infection.

    So the protocol is to purposely infect cancer patients with an immune system stressor they know very well how to defeat if it should become necessary, but basically let them get sick, run a fever and get nauseous for a few days, and recover without intervention as long as that does not become life-threatening, and once they have recovered do it again. Rinse, wash, repeat. It isn’t chemotherapy, it is basically a controlled-poisoning therapy! That has resulted in the complete remission of some cancers (body, not brain, to my knowledge).

  2. Sunny Peneka says:

    Gene, this is a very interesting report.
    Tony C, also very interesting. Thank you both.
    I am waiting for this book to come to the public library as I cannot afford it; but I wonder if anyone here has read or heard about it:
    Cancer as a Metabolic Disease: on the origin, management and prevention of cancer by Thomas Seyfried.

  3. Anonymously Yours says:

    I think it’s very possible…. There’s so much we don’t know… And more new information is to come….

    Maybe if they could find the cause of government waste….. Something like this could easily be funded and researched…..

  4. Tony C. says:

    Sunny: Yes, I have that at hand, and have read it, cover to cover. Last year. Memory should still serve me. What would you like to know?

  5. Blouise says:

    Tony C.,

    This is yet another area that holds great interest for me but of which I have little knowledge … repeated serial infections as a treatment.

    How does this approach affect the white blood cell count for it sounds as if the level would be constantly raised keeping the body on high alert, so to speak.

  6. Tony C. says:

    Blouise: I don’t recall reading that (any specific effect on white blood cell count). It sounded more like a roller coaster to me; wait for the fever to subside, then infect again. I got the impression you get to enjoy a day of health before getting kicked again. But like Seyfried’s approach (which is completely different), the idea may lead to complete remission, but also may lead to an operable condition. And like Seyfried’s approach, the infection idea is much more natural than either radiation or chemo, even being dog sick for six months is “recoverable” in the sense that six months later you can look and feel fine, there are seldom permanent side effects of the flu. (lung scarring in some cases, but not if you choose your flu carefully.)

    Seyfried’s approach is an extreme form of a medical ketogenic starvation diet. If memory serves, about 700 calories a day, composed of roughly 75% (of calories) from fat, 20% from protein, and less than 5% from carbohydrates. Something like three whole eggs mixed with mayo in a salad. No bread. There is a strong scientific basis for this working as a result of the cellular biology; Seyfried’s thesis is that the 1956 Warburg Theory is correct and Seyfried provides voluminous references (over 1700 footnotes and references) to published science that support the Warburg Theory.

    Which is that Cancer is primarily a metabolic disease of damaged cellular respiration supported by fermentation. This was refuted (incorrectly) by other researchers at the time, and eventually supplanted by the “genetic” theory in the 1970’s, which has led to a dead end in cancer research. Seyfried shows a lot of modern evidence that Warburg was right, but had neither the funds or technology to advance his views with supporting science, and some “leading lights” of cancer research at the time (Sidney Weinhouse, editor of Cancer Research, and Alan Ainsberg, Harvard Medical School), for their own reasons, attacked Warburg and discouraged others from researching along his lines. Seyfried picks apart their criticisms, and even points out how they contradicted their own published studies and conclusions that strongly supported the Warburg Theory — Before it was Warburg that crystallized that theory of cancer initiation and published his model in Science.

  7. Blouise says:

    Tony C.,

    You’ve given me some interesting material to research/learn. Thanks

  8. Tony C. says:

    Blouise: Ah. The article I read was titled “Hot, Toxic, and Healing” in the January 4 issue of New Scientist; the author is Uwe Hobohm, a cell biologist and professor of bioinformatics at the University of Applied Sciences in Giessen, Germany. He has written a book on the Coley-PRRL story called Healing Heat: An essay on cancer immune defence.

    In 1891, William Coley was a surgeon looking for some treatment for cancer. He published his account of “fever therapy,” treating cancer with pathogenic bacteria. Although Coley killed some people with infections, he eventually began using heat-sterilized bacterial extracts that induced illness, and he started with small doses and increased them until the patient was developing fevers over 39C (102F). From 1896 to 1936 he treated hundreds of patients, and although there were failures, he achieved many cures and the treatment regimen came to be known as Coley’s Toxins.

    Fast Forward: A review of Coley’s work was published in 2008 by Alberto Mantovani, he wrote that Coley had achieved “long term survival of individuals with malignancies that remain a major challenge to treat even now,” and that included sarcoma patients that today would be considered late-stage, inoperable cases, yet their five year survival rate was over 80%.

    Hobohm then stumbles across a 1951 paper reporting that among 300 cases of childhood leukemia, 26 spontaneous remissions were observed. Of those, 21 had been preceded by a feverish infection. That seemed like more than a coincidence, and in independent research he found 30 studies noting that people with frequent bouts of fever-inducing illness had a lower risk of lifetime cancer, and a lower risk of relapse after cancer treatment.

    Hobohm is lab-testing the Coley approach from a different angle, using PRRL (Pathogen Recognition Receptor Ligands). These are the signaling molecule that puts the immune system on high alert, they are produced by bacteria, viruses and fungi. But not by cancer cells. Even though the immune system is now known to infiltrate tumors with cytotoxic lymphocytes, without PRRL there is no “ramping up” of the immune response, so it remains very weak.

    Hobohm has found by injecting mice with a mix of PRRLs he can cure them of cancer; if given over a long period of time (corresponding to what would be several months in humans, the treatment period used by Coley). One of the difficulties in moving forward is that radiation and chemotherapy can severely damage the immune system, and trying to use fever inducing infection after chemotherapy and radiation have failed may not work, the patient may be too fragile at that point to survive the infection.

  9. Tony C. says:

    Blouise: So I kind of screwed up my first post on that; I mixed up in my head that Coley’s Toxins had already cured scads of people when Coley was doing it (for 40 years) versus what is happening now. It isn’t being used right now, but has a 40 year history of success in humans. Sorry for my confusion.

  10. Sunny Peneka says:

    Tony C
    Thank you for responding to my question. I am not a scientist, but have a real interest in nutritional subject matter. Is the book very technical or could a reasonably educated person grasp the message? Would you recommend it as an informative book? If so I will redouble my efforts to locate a copy. (Sorry I am tardy in getting back to you.)

  11. Tony,

    My real concern with nanotech lies less in self-replication (although that does present the possibility of a real horror show scenario) than it is in byproducts and pollution, many of which could be unexpected and heinously hard to control.

  12. Blouise says:

    Tony C.,

    🙂 … I’m still in the early stages of reading and appreciate your attention to detail

  13. Tony C. says:

    Sunny says: Is the book very technical or could a reasonably educated person grasp the message?
    It is very technical, Seyfried is NOT trying to make his argument for the layperson, he is trying to literally change the direction of cancer research, and his work is written for people versed in the all the esoteric details of cellular biology, replete with medical terminology, the technical use of words you may have thought you knew (like ‘respiration’ and ‘fermentation’ but in regard to a chemical cycle), and so forth.

    If you would like a sample in a similar style, read this Wikipedia Article on Cellular Respiration. That might be helpful anyway; the Warburg Theory of cancer is centered around a failure of cellular oxidative respiration resulting in the use of a fall-back system of cellular fermentation. Seyfried’s entire book is written in a similar “medical researcher” style.

    There is a Wikipedia entry for the Warburg Hypothesis, clearly written by a detractor since the third paragraph is a complete lie; claiming the Warburg effect is due to an adaptation of genetic changes, when Warburg and others (as Seyfried meticulously documents) show fairly convincingly the genetic changes in cancer cells are a red herring, the result of impaired respiration, not the cause of it. Yet this third paragraph is stated as a fact as if Warburg is already refuted, when in fact the research for the point in question, both completed and ongoing, supports the opposite conclusion.

    Warburg says “Cancer, above all other diseases, has countless secondary causes. But, even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar.”

    This is based in the fact that tumor cells mainly generate energy (as ATP molecules) by the non-oxidative breakdown of glucose, which results in the fermentation of sugar, aka anaerobic respiration, but normal healthy cells generate ATP by oxidative breakdown of pyruvate, a process completed by mitochondria. In essence the Warburg theory is that cancer is a mitochondrial dysfunction.

    That is the message of Seyfried, expanding on Warburg. Cancer is not about the mutations; cancer is about a malfunction in the generation of energy within a cell. As for treatment, there is yet another pathway to cellular energy: The processing of fats. The body uses fat stores when it runs out of glucose, which typically happens within three days of last eating plant-based food. (Proteins can provide some glucose too). The liver will break down fat into ketone bodies which cells can use in energy production instead of sugars.

    This is usually in response to extreme exertion (that consumes all readily available glucose), starvation, fasting, etc.

    Virtually all cells in the body have a pathway for processing ketone bodies, however, the vast majority of cancer cells rely exclusively on the fermentation of sugar for energy, their pathway for processing ketone bodies doesn’t work. Thus, if they are denied sugar for long enough, they die of starvation. But healthy cells with intact ketone processing do not.

    Thus the treatment Seyfried discusses is inducing “nutritional ketosis” and controlled starvation, which is like the low-carb diet on steroids: Almost entirely fat, and calorie restricted to the necessary metabolic maintenance level and no more. That depends on the person (and their size, different for children) but think for a normal man something like 700 calories a day. With, by the way, extensive supplements in vitamins and minerals (delivered without carbohydrates).

    A good companion book (which I also have) is “Ketogenic Diets” by Kossof, Freeman, Turner and Rubenstein.

    Don’t take any of this as medical advice, these can be dangerous protocols and should be administered and monitored by a health professional.

    Sunny says: Would you recommend it as an informative book?
    Yes, absolutely. It is packed with information and links to more information if you need it, if you want to Google for something this is how you know what to search for.

    If the terminology is unfamiliar, try to think of it as names of characters in a story. In the film “Star Wars,” you do not need to know what “Obi Wan Kenobi” means, it is just a name, a label for an active agent. So is the “Krebs cycle,” or “ATP” or “NADH.” The details don’t matter, and if you read through enough times, you start to recognize these “characters,” you remember their names, and start to understand the roles they play in the arguments. (That is not intended to be condescending in any way, this is how I do it myself, imagining characters engaging in battles, deals, subterfuge and journeys.)

    Ultimately, you do not need to understand the chemistry of catabolism in order to understand the theory, you can presume that as long as Seyfried isn’t lying about the research and points of chemistry presented, you can perceive the outline of his argument and determine whether you find it compelling or not. In my view I would be surprised if it does not cast a very dark shadow on the current “genetic” approach to cancer, which (to me) is pretty clearly an abject failure. As far as I can tell, the things that are working in cancer therapy (like Gene’s article outlines) are not really hinged on the “genetic hypothesis” at all, and it makes far more sense to me the genetic changes are a side effect of mitochondrial dysfunction and the byproducts of faulty respiration.

    Do you have some specific need for this information?

  14. Sunny Peneka says:

    Tony C,

    I thank you very much for your lengthy reply to my questions.
    First off, no, I do not have a specific need for this info. I only recently was reading about how cells work (very simple reading) and found it really fascinating. My background/education is not in science at all. This “sugar feeds cancer” stuff just really really excited me. I want to know more.
    I appreciate your coaching about how to read the technical terms and words. It wasn’t condescending at all.
    I have never heard of Warburg. The background you have briefly provided makes it all the more appealing.
    I’m going to try to get this book used and plod through it.
    Thanks again!

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