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Biotechnology

The use of biological organisms or enzymes to create, break down or transform a material.

Blood vessels

The tubes through which blood is carried around the body eg arteries, veins and capillaries

Melanoma

A tumour which arises from pigment-containing cells, especially in the skin

Treating cancers

What is a cancer cell?

Cancer cells reproduce without being affected by the normal mechanisms that control the cell cycle and limit their growth. Cancer cells:

  • no longer need an external stimulus to divide
  • are not sensitive to the normal signals that stop growth and division
  • fail to undergo apoptosis (programmed cell death) in different ways such as producing proteins to protect them from apoptosis or inactivating the proteins involved in apoptosis
  • may produce chemicals that stop the T-cells of the immune system from recognising them so the cancer cells are not destroyed by the immune system
  • invade healthy tissues by producing chemicals that dissolve protective proteins
  • are capable of metastasis
  • can stimulate the formation of new blood vessels to provide the resources they need to grow

Treating cancers

To treat cancer successfully, it is important to detect the problem as quickly as possible, before the tumour metastases. Unfortunately it often isn’t easy to detect cancers as they grow.

There are many different types of cancers, so what works in treating one cancer will not work for a different kind.

Sometimes cancers form lumps that can be detected on the outside of the body, which can make things a bit easier. Breast cancer and testicular cancer are both examples of this. Melanoma forms dark moles on the skin surface.

Mammograms

Mammograms like these can pick up breast tumours before they can be felt, the left image being normal and the right a cancerous mammography image. (Photo credit: morning2k. Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Sometimes the tumours grow deep inside the body. If there is plenty of room for them to grow before they cause symptoms, they can easily become very big and have formed many metastases before the person affected becomes aware of the problem. Lung cancers, stomach cancers and bowel cancers are rather like this.

Bowel Cancer

Tiny cameras that can see inside the body and, along with blood tests, CT scans and MRI, are used to detect cancers forming inside the body. (Photo credit: Dcoetzee. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

There are a number of different approaches to treating cancer. Some have been used for many years, whilst others involve cutting edge biotechnology. The choice of treatment will depend on the type and stage of the cancer. The ideal treatment attacks and destroys the tumour cells but leaves the healthy cells of the patient intact. No-one has yet found the perfect molecule, but we have an ever-expanding range of treatments to use against cancers.

Approaches to treating cancer

Activity:

Investigate one of the more recent forms of cancer therapy and produce a poster explaining how the cancer forms in the body and how the therapy you have chosen prevents the growth and spread of the tumour and/or kills the cancer cells.