DNA and Cancer

Having considered the legacies of the twentieth century, we might peer into the twenty-first century to see how medicine and medical theories will differ from the germ-based practices of the past hundred years.

In fact, no crystal ball is really needed to see where modern medicine is heading.  In the last few years, there was a mad rush to identify all segments of the DNA strand.  So intense was this quest that the DNA was divvied up among many researchers who rushed to patent their parts of the whole, often on the flimsy basis that what they had been assigned to study might be useful in determining the the nature of some other segment. After only 13 years, the Genome Project completed its study of human genes in 2003 and spawned a whole new biotech industry seeking medical applications for the research.

So, just as "progress" in the twentieth century depended on research into germs and hefty grants fueled the study of viruses, we can be absolutely certain that "progress" in this century will be a euphemism for patents based on manipulation of DNA, probably some mixture of splicing, removal, and other tampering with genetics.

Rarely in the annals of mankind has such a relatively new discovery taken off with such speed. At the time this page was first written, only one drug based on the new genetic sciences had FDA approval, Herceptin. It was approved on the basis of the incredible promise of a new technology, not its cure rate nor even its success in clinical trials.  It appears to have received approval so as not to discourage biotech companies from their mission to redefine medicine via gene technologies.

Herceptin purports to address genetic predispositions to cancer. When it was approved in 1998, clinical trials involving 900 women had been conducted and new prescriptions were allocated by lottery. The first two patients I knew who used it died (as had the women in the original trials.)

The Present Skill Level

As I understand the present state of knowledge, we homo sapiens share genetic material with other species. What makes us unique constitutes only 1-2% of our genetic make-up. You might say the rest of our genes are generic. This is humbling. When I take time to contemplate the ramifications of this fact, I feel my kinship with all life, not just with the wingeds and four-leggeds but with flowers and trees.

Experts can apparently harvest precisely the gene sought, but it is not at this time possible to splice a harvested gene into the desired place in the DNA sequence. Therefore the modification of genetic material involves a very large element of chance.

Genetic Predisposition

Through study of the complicated double helixes of the DNA code, scientists believe they can ascertain an individual's predisposition to virtually any disease. Using cancer as an example—and I admit my information may already be sorely out of date—there is something called an oncogene, a gene that if left unchecked would tend to cause cancer sometime during the course of the patient's life. In addition, there is a tumor suppressor gene, a gene whose task it is to hold the oncogene in check. There are also a host of other genes that are specific to certain tissues and that would explain why one person develops brain cancer and another liver cancer.

Very early in the Genome Project, experts had identified 33 factors that compromise the efficiency of the tumor suppressor genes. These included such variables as sick building syndrome and specific personal factors that affect mood and happiness. In other words, even if the new science becomes very Star Trekky and almost trans-Earth-like in dimension, we humans will still be affected by vicissitudes, both external and internal.

In theory, if the experts are right—and we have yet to see sufficient evidence that they are right—a day will come when an oncogene could be removed or rendered harmless; or it could be replaced with a gene that inhibits the tendency for malignancies to form. However, as matters stand today, what happens when a gene is transplanted is random and unpredictable.

Postscript: Several years have passed since Herceptin was approved; and I now know quite a number of patients who have had Herceptin prescribed for them. Most of them have suffered very severe side effects. So, while we always hope that there will be something new to relieve suffering, genetic strategies have a long way to go before becoming reliable.  This said, there is much more to the Genome Project than oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes.


Unusual and Little Known Protocols




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