Source:  Medical News Today; Science journal

Chemotherapy used to be a very blunt instrument.  The chemicals used in chemotherapy were originally developed for destruction of human life of the battlefields of World Wars (ie. Mustard gas).  This is once of the reasons why chemotherapy causes injuries to other organs, damaging symptoms such as hair loss, and even secondary cancers.  More recently, oncologists (doctors who specialize in cancer treatment) have benefited from advances in genetics to sharpen chemotherapy.  One of the newest advances is predicting the “life-cycle” of cancer cells so that doctors can target cancers which might be easier to kill.  More accurately they can identify those cancer cells that are close to the end and can push them (chemically speaking) off the ledge.

For those of you who want the technical explanation, here it goes: (The rest of you can skip to the next paragraph)  It all comes down to proteins -in this case BH3 peptides within the BCL-2 family.  BCL-2 proteins cause apoptosis (the process of cellular death) and scientists believe that they can influence this process by adding BH3 peptides to tip cell balance in favor of apoptosis vs. replication.  In a very literal sense, the scientists are able to trick the cancer cells into committing cellular suicide.  In the admittedly small study of tumors from 85 patients, including myelomas, leukemias and ovarian cancers, the chemotherapy was most successful against tumors which had the greatest mitochondrial tiping in the laboratory.

It may not sound like much to most people, but this is a radical new way of looking at exactly how chemotherapy works.  It has been thought for years that chemotherapy attacks rapidly proliferating (fast growing) cells which eventually group to form tumors.  This doesn’t really explain why chemotherapy doesn’t work effectively against skin cancers, for example.  The idea that chemorherapy is effective mainly against cancer cells which are close to dying may aid in the development of new chemotherapy agents which have less collateral damage.

Posted by: Gayle R. Lewis, Esquire