Drug resistance a worry in cancer treatment, says Nobel laureate

Drug resistance a worry in cancer treatment, says Nobel laureate

Dr Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and director of the National Cancer Institute, USA, has said that it will take another 20 to 30 years to control the symptoms of cancer without having to wait for the disease to strike. The symptoms, he said, can be detected early enough to prevent the rise and spread of the disease.

Varmus, in an interaction with Deccan Herald, said that the fight against cancer was long drawn. “To give you an indication of how seriously we take cancer research, the US alone has spent nearly 40 billion dollars over the last 10 years trying to find solutions. Solutions are not easy and we don’t know a whole lot of things yet about the disease, but I can say we have progressed in terms of prevention. We have got people to reduce tobacco consumption, take care of diet and work on obesity. The campaigns have shown positive results. We have also developed newer screening tests and kits which have enabled us to detect cancer symptoms early.”

The cancer researcher pointed out that knowledge about certain kinds of cancer may be high compared to others.

“Lung cancer is the biggest killer in the US. We have had a measure of success in the anti-smoking campaign and we even have better screening systems. But on the other hand, we don’t know enough about pancreatic cancer, which is also a major killer. Death rates are high, but we haven’t been able to conceive effective drugs. The biggest worry is the body becoming immune to drugs. That is an important concern for researchers all across the world. We are moving in the same direction as Aids has. Aids has been controlled by use of multiple drugs. Due to high drug resistance, we may have to medicate people with multiple drugs.”

Varmus said extensive studies on genes leading to cancer are on. Cancer may result from certain mutations that occur between genes. The mutations which cannot be predicted cause a rupture of the cell network leading to damage of the gene structure or the genome.

There is the theoretical possibility of changing the sequence of genes or manipulating the coding of genes to prevent spread of the disease. Gene therapy is becoming popular, but results have not yet been transformative. An atlas of genomic changes has been developed to identify sources of cancer.

Speaking about actor Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo surgery for breast cancer, Varmus said her action had brought about a change in people’s attitude to cancer.
“We can say that many people in the US are not ashamed to state publicly that they are afflicted by cancer. People are even ready to have ovaries removed to prevent cancer and this is being talked about in public. There is an element of de-stigmatising in the US now.”

The world renowned scientist said the National Cancer Institute, USA, was collaborating on nearly 20 projects with India on cancer research in different parts of the country.

The collaboration includes the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, institutes in Hyderabad, Delhi and Bangalore. Research is going on, on cellular pathways, systems biology, molecular biology and affiliated fields.

The idea is to make drug treatment methods very precise and bring about precision medicine.

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