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Treatments Focusing on Sugars May Help Cure Cancer: New Hope for Texas

Aug 18, 2007
It turns out that the key to defeating cancer just may found in sugar...well, at least in the polysaccarides, or "sugar molecules," surrounding tumors. That's good news for developed countries like the U.S., in which cancer is a leading cause of death. Texas alone endures approximately 10,000 lung-cancer related deaths every year, many of which are in high-pollutant areas like Dallas, Houston, and Austin. The implications this has for potential lifesaving treatments, and, subsequently, for the health care and health insurance industries, are profound.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, altering some of the sugars found on the surface of cancer cells can control tumor growth. Theorizing that changes in the polysaccarides surrounding tumors indicated the stages or aggressiveness of cancers, Ram Sasisekharan and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted studies in which cancer-infected mice were given doses of two enzymes and their products predicted to cut the sugar heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycans in different places. Heparinase I (hep I) promoted the growth of melanoma tumors, while heparinase III (hep III) inhibited their growth, and prevented subsequent spreading.

Tumors "bind to (hence, disrupt) activity of certain signaling molecules involved in tumor activity." The implication is that cancerous tumors can be restricted or encouraged by enzymes released by the body, or, as experiments would suggest, introduced to the body through polysaccaride-based anti-cancer drugs. Though further testing is necessary, such treatments may also come with the added bonus of having relatively few side-effects.

Further research has been done on enzymes' link to cancer growth. Results of a study conducted on lung cancer, released by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and published in the journal, Cancer Research, suggested that blocking the enzyme telomerase -- which prevents the death of cancer cells -- may also slow or halt the spread of most malignancies. Such treatments may be most effective after chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or other treatments are administered to rid the body of most of the disease. Enzymatic treatment, then, can follow, eliminating remaining cancer cells. Such therapies may also be used during the course of treatment to slow malignant growth.

This all makes a little more sense in light of some basic cell biology. In normal cells, the tail end of the chromosomes are called telomores. As cells divide and age, they become shorter and shorter, and, at a certain length, they simply stop dividing and die. Cancer cells, on the other hand, have a certain enzyme, telomerase, that activates and keeps the chromosomes the same length, thereby preventing their death. Malignant cells are so hard to kill partly because they live so long and multiply so rapidly. Enzymatic therapy that would halt this growth would be a major breakthrough in the treatment of nearly all cancers.

Between 1995 and 2000, there were 81,132 lung cancer cases recorded in Texas alone. Ninety percent of those who were diagnosed didn't make it past five years. The rates were higher in counties with higher emissions, especially emissions containing zinc, chromium, and copper. Ominously, a report entitled An Ecological Study of the Association of Metal Air Pollutants with Lung Cancer Incidence in Texas, released by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, concluded that "a positive relationship" between air pollution and lung cancer existed. Long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, produced from the combustion of fossil fuels (such as in power plants, incinerators and motor vehicles) also conferred lung cancer risks.

Undoubtedly, most lung cancer is associated with cigarette smoking, but around 15% of those with this horrid disease are nonsmokers. Such a significant percentage implies that other factors are to blame, such as air pollution (obviously higher in cities like Dallas and Houston), secondhand smoke, asbestos, and Radon exposure. Lung cancer rates are so significant because few people diagnosed are actually cured. If scientists can somehow find a way to treat even the toughest of cancers, there is hope for even the most desperate of patients.

What is so exciting about the possibility of enzymatic therapy for cancer patients is that it's relatively simple. Scientists are discovering the basic processes allowing cancers to exist and grow, and are attempting to cut them off before the malignancies overtake the body. Perhaps, just perhaps, we may even soon stop this often-fatal disease well before it can take hold. Now that would be something.

No one wants to be afflicted with cancer. How you take care of yourself can surely help reduce your risk, and will certainly affect you as you age -- eventually your wallet, as well.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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