In "The Cancer Sleeper Cell," oncologist Mukherjee shares his insights about the future of cancer research.
None of the traditional strategies to discover new anti-cancer therapies addresses distinctions among the cells in one cancer. A focus on the cancer stem cell does. Healthy Survivors keep a healthy perspective.
In 1961, when Kennedy committed to the goal for the next decade, "of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth," researchers already had the science and technology needed to accomplish that task.
In contrast, researchers do not yet know how to isolate and extract rare cancer stem cells from the rest of the cancer cells. Even more challenging, researchers need new ways to determine whether a drug might be effective at killing cancer stem cells. "[T]he most traditional metric by which an anticancer chemical is judged -- its ability to reduce the size of a tumor, or to kill cancer cells in a petri dish -- won't work...." A drug that kills the one-in-a-million cancer stem cell will go unnoticed.
Mukherjee takes a grand step back to look at the future of cancer research, suggesting that researchers look at each cancer as a complex, organized "growing being within a growing being." He likens the effort of destroying cancer stem cells without killing the patient to the technically demanding and risky operations that separate conjoined twins: Both may end in tragedy for patients. But both offer the best hope of a full and healthy future for patients.