As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
Engineered immune cells have prevented Type 1 diabetes in mice.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
Nearly 2 million Americans suffer from type 1 diabetes — a condition that causes drastic spikes or drops in sugar levels and, in turn, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. It's a condition that must constantly be monitored, something that a lot of diabetics find mentally exhausting.
One diabetic, Naomi, told the BBC that she couldn't handle "the physical or mental challenges of diabetes anymore," and struggled to monitor her blood sugar levels multiple times a day. Naomi's struggle isn't unique — it's called diabetes burnout.
There's no cure for type 1 diabetes. However, researchers at the University of Arizona have adapted a cancer immunotherapy technique that has produced promising results in treating diabetes (in mice). The researchers engineered immune cells to fight off rogue T cells (immune cells that go haywire and attack the body) that can damage the pancreas, causing type 1 diabetes.
This new technique would prevent that from happening — and if it works in humans, it could be an exciting first step for diabetics like Naomi.
T cells and diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a kind of autoimmune disorder, which is hypothesized to occur when rogue T cells attack the pancreas's insulin-producing beta cells. As a result, a patient with type 1 diabetes is unable to regulate their blood sugar levels effectively.
Patients must take artificial insulin daily to avoid all this. If they don't, they run the risk of amputation, coma, or even death.
To prevent the development of this disease, scientists behind the new research, published this November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, planned to stop the attack at its source — the rogue, pathogenic T cell.
The research team bioengineered a T cell that looks and behaves just like the rogue T cell they're trying to eliminate, which they named 5MCAR.
This bioengineered T cell can target and kill the pathogenic T cells on its own or order natural T cells to do it. Both approaches are designed to prevent healthy pancreas cells from being attacked.
Michael Kuhns, the study's lead author and an associate professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona, says that this design was a way to take advantage of evolution's natural process instead of reinventing the wheel.
"We engineered a 5MCAR that would direct killer T cells to target autoimmune T cells that mediate type 1 diabetes. So now, a killer T cell will actually recognize another T cell. We flipped T cell-mediated immunity on its head," said Kuhns.
Essentially, the idea is that the engineered T cells would target the rogue T cells and turn the rest of the immune system against them, too — thus, stopping the damage that causes type 1 diabetes.
To see how well this worked in practice, researchers tested their engineered T cells in a rodent model of type 1 diabetes and found that the engineered T cells were incredibly effective at finding and attacking rogue T cells.
"When we saw that the 5MCAR T cells completely eliminated the harmful T cells that invaded the pancreas, we were blown away," says Thomas Serwold, co-author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
"It was like they hunted them down. That ability is why we think that 5MCAR T cells have tremendous potential for treating diseases like type 1 diabetes."
The human question
Of course, success in mice models does not necessarily mean that this treatment will be effective in humans. Similar CAR T cell therapies have been approved by the FDA to treat blood cancers, but while they have shown early success, there have also been several deaths during clinical trials.
All and all, targeted T cell therapies may have a promising future for fighting these diseases and disorders, but further research will need to be done before these can confidently and effectively be brought to humans.
A study says nature's candy can be a valuable supplement to sunblock.
- The skin of study participants who consumed lots of grapes developed an increased resistance to UV light.
- Grapes contain polyphenols, good stuff for repairing skin and fighting inflammation.
- After their grape adventure, biopsies revealed less skin-cell damage from UV light.
The sun's ultraviolet rays can be punishing to human skin. Sunblock can mitigate the potential damage, but when it comes to protecting our body's largest organ, more help is always appreciated. A new study from researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB) may have just the thing: They've just discovered that the consumption of grapes can significantly increase the skin's resistance to UV rays.
Grape consumption may act as an 'edible sunscreen,'" lead author of the study Allen Oak of the UAB School of Medicine says. "This does not mean that grapes should be used in lieu of sunscreen, but they may offer additional protection which we are eager to continue learning more about. This research is exciting because our current findings provide building blocks for additional studies that may eventuate in an oral photo-protective product from a natural source."
Credit: Maciej Serafinowicz/Unsplash/Big Think
For the study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the researchers fed 19 healthy volunteers a powder of freeze-dried grapes for 14 days. This is the equivalent of 2.25 cups of grapes per day.
The participants' sensitivity to UV light was assessed before the trial period, and again afterward. Each individual's skin was assigned a Minimal Erythema Dose (MED) value — the threshold beyond which UVC radiation causes visible reddening to skin after 24 hours. After the test period, the amount of UV light required to redden each participant's skin was 74.8 percent greater than it had been before. This is the first study demonstrating this effect.
Biopsies also revealed fewer skin-cell deaths and fewer inflammatory markers. These slow down healing and may be linked to skin cancer.
The enhanced resistance to UV light came courtesy of an increase of polyphenols in their skin. Polyphenols are a naturally occurring family of compounds found in grapes, berries, and other fruits. They're also in products derived from them, such as wine, chocolate, tea, and legumes.
"Study results indicate that oral consumption of grapes has systemic beneficial effects in healthy adults," says Oak, citing prior research showing that polyphenols repair UV-ray damage, and that they can also reduce inflammation.
The researchers also found that a topical application of a grapeseed extract containing the polyphenol proanthocyanidins inhibited the formation of sunburn cells.
Avoiding skin cancer?
An estimated one in five Americans develops skin cancer by age 70, with most cases being linked to sun exposure, including 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanomas.
The study finds early indications that grape consumption may also help a person avoid skin cancer, though these findings are just preliminary, cautions Oak, and require further investigation before a definitive conclusion may be drawn.
Principle investigator Craig Elmets, also of UAB, tells the California Table Grape Commission, "We saw a significant photoprotective effect with grape consumption and we were able to identify molecular pathways by which that benefit occurs — through repair of DNA damage and downregulation of proinflammatory pathways. Grapes may act as an edible sunscreen, offering an additional layer of protection in addition to topical sunscreen products."
Researchers discover that cancer cells go into hibernation to avoid chemotherapy effects.
- Cancer cells go into a state similar to hibernation when attacked by chemotherapy.
- The low-energy state is similar to diapause—the embryonic survival strategy of over a 100 species of mammals.
- Researchers hope to use these findings to develop new cancer-fighting therapies.
When attacked by chemotherapy, all cancer cells have the ability to start hibernating in order to wait out the threat, finds new research. The cancer cells hijack an evolutionary survival mechanism to transition into a state of "rest" until chemotherapy stops. Devising therapies to target the cells in this slow-dividing state can prevent the cancer from regrowing.
The discovery was made by Dr. Catherine O'Brien and the team from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Canada. Professor O'Brien, who teaches in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto, described that the tumor acts "like a whole organism, able to go into a slow-dividing state, conserving energy to help it survive."
She compared this to animals who enter hibernation to get through difficult environmental conditions. Dr. Aaron Schimmer, Director of the Research Institute and Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret, was even more specific, sharing that the behavior of the cells was akin to that of "bears in winter."
"We never actually knew that cancer cells were like hibernating bears," explained Schimmer. "This study also tells us how to target these sleeping bears so they don't hibernate and wake up to come back later, unexpectedly."
He thinks this adaptation by the cells can be the key cause of resistance to drugs.
Cancer cells may go to into diapause, entering a drug-tolerant persister (DTP) state.
The scientists arrived at their observations by observing human colorectal cancer cells, which were treated with chemotherapy in a petri dish. This caused the cells to go into a slow-dividing state during which they ceased expanding and needed little nutrition. Such a reaction continued as long as chemotherapy was present.
The low-energy state of the cells was similar to diapause—the embryonic survival strategy of over a 100 species of mammals. They protect embryos by keeping them inside their bodies during extreme situations of very high or very low temperatures, or when sustenance is not available. Minimal cell division takes place when animals are in this state, while their metabolism slows to a crawl.
"The cancer cells are able to hijack this evolutionarily conserved survival strategy, even as it seems to be lost to humans," pointed out Dr. O'Brien.
When the cells are in this state, they activate a cellular process known as autophagy (means "self-devouring"). While this is taking place, and if no other nutrients are present, the cell feeds on its own proteins and other cellular parts to survive. Observing that, the scientists tried impeding autophagy and found that the cancer cells were destroyed, succumbing to chemotherapy. Knowing this can lead to new therapies, according to O'Brien, who proposed that "We need to target cancer cells while they are in this slow-cycling, vulnerable state before they acquire the genetic mutations that drive drug-resistance."
Check out the new study published in Cell.
What lies in store for humanity? Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku explains how different life will be for your descendants—and maybe your future self, if the timing works out.
- Carl Sagan believed humanity needed to become a multi-planet species as an insurance policy against the next huge catastrophe on Earth. Now, Elon Musk is working to see that mission through, starting with a colony of a million humans on Mars. Where will our species go next?
- Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku looks decades into the future and makes three bold predictions about human space travel, the potential of 'brain net', and our coming victory over cancer.
- "[I]n the future, the word 'tumor' will disappear from the English language," says Kaku. "We will have years of warning that there is a colony of cancer cells growing in our body. And our descendants will wonder: How could we fear cancer so much?"