Around the world scientists are conducting research on cancer, trying to find out what causes this disease and how we might be able to prevent, treat and cure it.
Roughly one third of deaths in the UK are from cancer, but there are many different types, caused in different ways. When people talk about finding ‘a cure for cancer’ they are usually talking nonsense, because no one treatment will work for all these different diseases.
Cancer occurs when there is a mutation of certain genes in a cell. This can happen randomly, or be caused when radiation, viruses or chemicals damage the DNA. Usually mutations in your DNA don’t have much effect, but some changes make the cell that’s been mutated start to divide and reproduce. The single cell might turn into a clump of cells which keep growing, refuse to die and start damaging the surrounding bits of your body.
There are a number of different treatments that aim to get rid of tumours or prevent them spreading. The simplest thing to do is try to cut the tumour out and hope that no mutated cells are left to keep reproducing. Other treatments include chemotherapy (which uses chemicals to kill the cancer cells) and radiotherapy (which uses radiation to further damage the DNA of the mutated cells and stop them dividing).
A new type of treatment which is being researched is gene therapy in which the mutated genes are replaced by healthy genes, or the body is given extra genes which helps it to fight the cancer. A lot of research is going into finding out which genes get mutated to cause cancer, but scientists have so far discovered that many of the different kinds of cancers involve mutations in completely different genes.
Other cancer research involves finding new treatments like anti-cancer vaccines, or trying to find out which substances cause cancer in the first place. Scientists have already shown that cigarette smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens).