Cancer research – why it is so difficult?

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I addressed the Pattaya City Expats Club a couple of weeks ago on the subject of ‘Living Wills’ (and I hope you have registered yours), but in the very lively Q&A session afterwards some statements came up which I feel obliged to answer in the public arena.

A “cancer research” item was spoken about, which was cited as the biggest and most comprehensive and most expensive study ever conducted.

It was implied that the results of the study were suppressed by the beef industry and the dairy industry, because the findings implicated meat and dairy products in the causes of cancer.  (The conspiracy theory is alive and well.)

Please consider just ‘how’ the meat and dairy industries can continue to suppress these research results?  Buckets of money?  But with cancer research being done all over the world, by legitimate scientists, they must be very large buckets, and there must be an army of researchers ready to be on the take.  I’m sorry, but I do not believe that the world’s researchers are all corrupt.  In fact, at the end of all research papers are statements by the researchers to show whether or not they have any connection with any groups or manufacturers named in the research.

This highlights one of the weaknesses of the internet – “facts” are not subject to scrutiny.  You can post anything you like, and there is no vetting of your posting.  For example, the email notification that ‘Aspartame’ can cause Multiple Sclerosis and a whole swag of other conditions.  The writer’s sister stopped her diet soft drinks and made a miraculous recovery.  This tripe has been going round the world for 10 years.  You would imagine that if it were so easy to suppress scientific information, the cola manufacturers would have had Frank (the Enforcer) round to his home already.

No, science progresses slowly and with a measured tread.  Pointing the finger at potential carcinogens requires much careful study, far beyond a case study of one.

There are many reasons for this, including the fact that your reaction to ‘carcinogens’ (cancer producing substances) is not necessarily the same as the reaction of the person sitting next to you.  Individual differences do exist, and may even be reflections of inherited (genetic) influences.  This, in part, goes to explain why your Uncle Jimmy smoked 80 cigarettes a day for 60 years and was shot by a jealous husband when he was 103, while the man next door died at 45 with lung cancer after smoking only 20 cigarettes a day for the previous 20 years!

So what is a carcinogen?  Cancer is caused by abnormalities in a cell’s DNA (its genetic blueprint).  Abnormalities may be inherited from parents, or they may be caused by outside exposures to the body such as chemicals, radiation, or even infectious agents including viruses.  Some carcinogens do not act on DNA directly, but cause cancer in other ways, such as causing cells to divide at a faster rate.  Substances that can cause changes that can lead to cancer then are called carcinogens.

The difficulties in studying them come from the fact that carcinogens do not cause cancer in every case, every time.  Substances classified as carcinogens may have different levels of cancer-causing potential.  Some may cause cancer only after prolonged, high levels of exposure (remember the words of Paracelsus: “Dosage alone determines poisoning”).  And for any particular person, the risk of developing cancer will depend on many factors, including the length and intensity of exposure and the person’s genetic makeup.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has evaluated the cancer-causing potential of about 900 likely candidates in the last 30 years, placing them into one of the following groups:

Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans

Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans

Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans

Group 3: Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans

Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans

There are around 90 carcinogens in Group 1, with most being referred to by long chemical names such as 1-(2-Chloroethyl)-3-(4-methylcyclohexyl)-1-nitrosourea (Methyl-CCNU), however, there are others like solar radiation, alcoholic beverages, analgesic mixtures containing phenacetin, salted fish (Chinese-style) and tobacco smoke.

Now then, has anyone heard from Uncle Jimmy recently?