I know cancer isn’t something we typically make puns about, so I apologize if I’ve offended anyone with ‘orcogene’. However, I think cancer has become a ‘scare word’ in our society, and I think the fear associated with condition has led to some major misunderstandings about what cancer is, how cancer is caused, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to ‘cure’ it. Let’s start off with the basic biology of cancer cells, and just for fun, let’s talk about it in terms of Lord of the Rings. (If you’re a Tolkien fan you may want to check out my earlier blog post: Tolerance and Tolkien).
Cancer is simply a condition which is caused by a single cell being mutated. This mutation results in uncontrollable replication which eventually results in cancer cells being spread all around the body, invading essential organs, and impeding normal cell replication. Though the origins of orcs are a bit of a debate in the forums, the most popular theory (that they are corrupted elves) works extremely well for this analogy. For example, elves are like normal animal cells, they grow (though cells complete their cell cycle and reach maturity in under a year, and elves are immortal), they reproduce, and of course they ultimately die (however, for elves it’s always in combat). As Saruman explains, “(orcs) were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life.” Similarly, cancer cells were once healthy cells that were effect by mutagens and carcinogens and mutated into an unstoppable replication machine.
We know that orcs were turned due to torture, mutilation, and dark powers, but cancer cells are the result of a more ‘simplistic’ process. Everyone has two types of genes in their cells, proto-oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Proto-oncogenes normally help cells grow and are essential for all life to form, however, if a proto-oncogene becomes mutated, or if an individual inherits too many copies of the gene it can become potentially dangerous, when oncogenes are turned on (activated) it makes an individual more susceptible to developing cancer. Luckily, tumor suppressor genes also exist in most cells which act as a ‘plan b’ in case the proto-oncogenes become oncogenes and go ‘evil’.Tumor suppressor genes act to slow down cell growth, edit DNA, and tell cells when to die, when tumor suppressor genes are turned off (inactivated) cancer can begin, these genes act as the guardians of our cells, much like Aragorn. In order for an organism to fully develop cancer the oncogenes must be activated and the tumor suppressor genes must be inactivated. You might be thinking, isn’t it pretty unlikely that both of these systems would be mutated? Yeah, it totally is unlikely, that’s where a persons genetics comes in. If an individual already inherited an extra proto-oncogene or inherited a ‘lame’ tumor suppressor gene than it makes it more likely for them to develop cancer. This is why people whose family members had cancer are more likely to also be diagnosed, they most likely inherited one of these crappy version of these genes! This is also why some people can be long time smokers/tanners, but not have cancer (but this requires some pretty awesome genetics).
So, now that we understand how cancer happens at the molecular level, it may make more sense why there is still no cure for it. Contrary to what society may lead you to believe, cancer is not new. In fact there was just an article that came out about breast cancer being discovered in an ancient Egyptian mummy. Though rates of cancer seem to be increasing as time goes on there are some biases with this claim we have to explore. First of all, reporting/diagnosis of cancer was much less common in ancient times. In fact, many people died of unrelated injuries or only lived until 40, so cancer was often just a coincidence. Secondly, as our life expectancy increases globally we see the rate non-communicable diseases (cancer being one of the biggest forms of NCD) rise dramatically, and communicable diseases (with the exception of HIV, TB, etc.) decrease. Though it’s true that sun exposure, smoking, etc. can increase your risk of cancer (as they are mutagens/carcinogens that can increase your cell’s mutation rates), just simply aging also increases your chances of being diagnosed, and as older people are becoming more common in society, so is cancer. Aging can put you at risk for cancer simply because your cell’s machinery for checking and fixing mutations in the DNA gets old and loses efficiency.
So, why isn’t there a cure for cancer? Well, the relationship between the tumor suppressor genes and the proto-oncogenes is a very delicate one that nature has worked to perfect for millions of years. If we simply attempt to turn off proto-oncogenes cells wouldn’t be able to divide, you wouldn’t be able to heal wounds or grow taller. If we simply tried to increase the amount of tumor suppressor genes we would have the same problem, cells would be commanded to die at a much faster rate and new cells wouldn’t be reproduced fast enough to replenish the loss. Chemotherarpy, the most common treatment for cancer, acts by blindly killing cells and hope that the the cancer cells will be removed in the process, however, as most people know healthy cells also die during the process, hence why hair falling out is a common symptom. Chemotherapy is like sending a Ents into battle, it’s not very good at determining who is the ‘good guy’ (elves/healthy cells) and who are the ‘bad guys’ (orcs/cancer cells) and may result in substantial losses to both sides. Cancer drugs currently being studied attempt to target cancer cells specifically, or work to improve the ability of the cell’s machinery to work more efficiently longer to keep up with our aging population. These drugs could fight mutations (Saruman in this case) more efficiently (much like Gandalf the White) and result in more effective treatment of cancer.
And yes, if I was developing a cancer drug, I would totally name it Gandalf.
This extended battle scene is a great visual representation of the information I have discussed, keep the analogies in mind while watching it and cancer will become much clearer…