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Scientists may have found a way to kill cancer cells without chemotherapy

Chemo is our best response to cancer so far. A novel new therapy could render it obsolete.

  • Researchers at Northwestern have discovered a genetic "kill code" that might enable the destruction of cancer cells.
  • This novel new therapy "downstream" of chemo might destroy cancer cells without affecting the body's immune system.
  • While no animal trials have been conducted, this potential therapy could signal the demise of chemotherapy.

One of the biggest criticisms about our current approach to treating cancer is chemotherapy. Critics liken it to dropping a bomb on a village instead of singling out homes of bad actors. War metaphors are impossible to avoid when discussing cancer, for good reason: It is an all-out assault on your body.

When I went through testicular cancer, I was given three options: Since it had not metastasized, do nothing after surgery and monitor; two weeks of radiation therapy (which often leads to another cancer down the road); one round of chemotherapy, mostly as a preventive measure. I chose the latter.

Even my oncologist knew it wasn't an ideal solution. As with much of medicine, you go with what's best until something better is discovered. Chemotherapy is an umbrella term with numerous dosages and drugs in the various courses. My one round was on the mild side; a close friend had 12 rounds in four months while battling a much more aggressive intestinal cancer. His immune system needed serious rebuilding after that incident.

While there are many applications and complications associated with chemotherapy, the commonly understood mechanism is the paralyzing of bone marrow, which leads to lower amounts of red and white blood cells and platelets. This results in the depression of your immune system. Along with the suppression and cessation of growth of cancer cells, numerous important cells are also damaged, stressed, or destroyed. In very aggressive cancers, bone marrow stem cells are obliterated and must be replaced.

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For most people, it's time and healing. Destroy your immune system, rest, eat well, and exercise to the degree you can to keep blood flowing. While not ideal, it works for many. Billions of dollars are spent each year searching for better means of fighting this disease. A new course of action shows promise that one day, chemotherapy too might be a practice of the past.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at Northwestern University have discovered a genetic "kill code" that could enable the destruction of cancer cells without the "spray and pray" mentality of chemotherapy.

The hardest part of cancer research thus far has been finding a way to destroy cancer cells without affecting the rest of the body's networks. In 2017, a team led by Marcus E Peter, a professor at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, discovered that every cell in our body has a unique code that can trigger cell death. His team did not understand how to switch that code on, however.

Bringing us to the current study, also led by Peter. As Lisa Schönhaar and Ruqayyah Moynihan write for Business Insider:

According to the new study, the code is available as information in ribonucleic acid, or RNA, and microRNAs. The small RNA molecules can effectively kill cancer cells, a process that chemotherapy is meant to activate.

Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

Testing this method on four cell lines, two human and two mouse, the team identified over 700 targets leading to cancer cell proliferation. They found that chemotherapy drugs kill cancer cells in part by triggering the release of a toxic mechanism, resulting in the release of tumor-suppressive miRNAs. By targeting this specific mechanism, they believe they might be able to trigger this action without the complications posed by current genotoxic drugs.

As Peter commented on the study:

"Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome… My goal was not to come up with a new artificial toxic substance. I wanted to follow nature's lead. I want to utilize a mechanism that nature developed."

Unfortunately, such an application is years away. The team has yet to conduct a single animal trial. That said, Peter hopes to turn this knowledge into a "novel form of therapy." One major problem with chemotherapy, Peter says, is that since it triggers the release of toxic RNAs, secondary cancers can result as a consequence. The new potential therapy his team is developing is "downstream" of chemo and may avoid the side effects of destroying an entire immune system.

As with all breakthrough drugs, numerous studies will have to be conducted. But the time spent might be worth it, if this kill code can be put into action.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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