When we think of cancer, the tendency is to focus exclusively on the primary tumour and the harm that it is causing the body. While it is certainly a good place to start, it is worth remembering that most cancer deaths (at least 90%) occur as a result of metastasis. Metastasis is the spreading of an existing tumour to other organs far from the primary site.
Conventional Cancer Treatments
Cancer treatments in the past have focused on shrinking the primary tumour, usually by using Chemotherapy as a stand-alone treatment but quite often in combination with Radiation Therapy and sometimes with Surgery. The toxic side effects associated with some of these traditional methods have been of great concern in Oncology and research into less aggressive treatment methods has occasionally produced good results.
Since metastasis is responsible for such a high proportion of cancer deaths, some researchers have concentrated their efforts in looking for mechanisms to stop metastasis altogether, or, at the very least, to slow it down.
Understanding why metastasis occurs in the first place has produced a few surprises. It was previously assumed that the process of metastasis was triggered when a tumour grew beyond a certain size. This is apparently not the case.
According to Hasini Jayatilaka, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute of Nano Bio Technology at Johns Hopkins University, a tumour behaves in much the same way as a human settlement would: when overpopulation occurs, some members of the community are obliged to move elsewhere. When a tumour reaches a certain critical density cancer cells break off and, by the aid of the lymph and blood systems, spread to other body organs and establish themselves there.
As Hasini Jayatilaka explains, a patient with Breast Cancer does not succumb to the disease as a result of the lump in her breast but because of the cancer’s spread to the liver, lungs and brain which may render it untreatable.
After understanding the biochemical mechanism that triggers metastasis Hasini Jayatilaka and a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered that two existing drugs could significantly slow down the process of metastasis, potentially creating a window for treatments and therapies to work on the cancer. This cocktail that could have far-reaching implications was tested on mice and is made up of Tocilizumab (which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis), and Reparixin, which is still in the evaluation stage for cancer treatment. Clinical trials on human subjects will determine its efficacy with the open possibility of adding a third drug or adjusting the proportions of Tocilizumab and Reparixin in an attempt at completely halting the process of metastasis.
Any new development in Oncology is met with enthusiasm. The ravages caused by cancer are often compounded by the aggressive nature of the treatments. A quiet revolution has however been going on over the last decade or so. Progress in the area of Integrative Cancer Treatments will eventually relegate the full use of traditional cancer treatments to the periphery. These alternative cancer treatments focus primarily on eliminating the cancer while making use of alternative therapies to keep the rest of the body strong to counter the disease.