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New generation of targeted cancer drugs renewed the hope for developing the cure for disease. However, new research reveals that cancer constantly evolves forming new mutated versions. Targeted drugs only eliminate a part of these cells.

The possibility of getting cancer sends shivers down most people’s back. This afflictive ailment can knock on the door of individuals of all ages and is responsible for the death of millions every single year. Management options for cancer are diverse, but most of them are well recognized for their serious adverse events. This happens because anti-cancer substances (collectively known as chemotherapeutic agents) act on cells that have a singular trait: they divide rapidly. Unfortunately, this trait is not exclusive of cancerous cells. Healthy cells, such as cells in the digestive tract, blood and hair follicles, also have this property. Therefore, the usefulness of chemotherapy is limited due to its toxicity and, in some cases, its limited efficacy.

Targeted anti-cancer therapy – new approach to treat cancer

The development of therapeutic approaches that avoid chemotherapy’s terrible side effects and maximize the probability of cure is an ongoing effort. Current cancer research is now focusing on a very specific approach to treatment: targeted drug therapy. Today’s technologies and knowledge have allowed researchers to get a clear view of the genetic mutations and other modifications that underlie cancerous diseases. It is thought that by creating molecules that go after these specific modifications, new drugs that attack cancer cells and do less damage to normal cells can be developed. Some examples of targeted therapies already available on the market include gefitinib to treat non-small cell lung cancer and bortezomib to treat multiple myeloma that does not respond to other treatments.

However promising these drugs might be, they should not be regarded as an infallible solution. They are still far from being the indisputable cure for cancer. But if they’re targeted and highly specific, why is it that they are not as good as we thought them to be?

Cancer cells constantly change in the course of tumor growth

Cancerous growths usually begin as single cell, which suffers various mutations and ends up starting dividing uncontrollably. If that were to be the only mutation, targeted therapies would have no reason to fail. But cancerous cells mutate almost continuously in the course of disease progression, and these consecutive mutations make them more and more aggressive and drug resistant.

Due to the diverse mutations these cells suffer, cancers end up being made of different types of cells with different kinds of mutations.

At best, targeted therapies attack one group of mutated cells. While this might help slow down the progression of the disease, it does not put an end to it – precisely because it leaves many subgroups of cancerous cells undamaged. Many researchers have looked into this problem and there is plenty of evidence supporting its veracity.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • LOHR, J. G., STOJANOV, P. & CARTER, S. L. (2014) Widespread Genetic Heterogeneity in Multiple Myeloma: Implications for Targeted Therapy. Cancer cell, 25, 91-101
  • KERANGUEVEN, F., NOGUCHI, T. & COULIER, F. (1997) Genome-wide Search for Loss of Heterozygosity Shows Extensive Genetic Diversity of Human Breast Carcinomas. Cancer Research, 57, 5469-5474
  • NICOLSON, G. (1984) Generation of phenotypic diversity and progression in metastatic tumor cells. Cancer metastasis reviews, 3, 25-42.
  • Photo courtesy of faungg's photo by Flickr :
  • Photo courtesy of Libertas Academica by Flickr :

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