Opinion

Terry Fox inspires scientists

Mukund Ghavre Special to Postmedia

The Terry Fox statue in Ottawa. File photo

The Terry Fox statue in Ottawa. File photo

While the earliest reports of cancer chemotherapy date back to the second half of the 19th century, serious research around chemo began in earnest during the Second World War.

Since that conflict which ran from 1939 to 1945, thousands of anti-cancer agents have been prepared and tested against various strains of the disease. Some of these are natural products, others are synthetic (man-made) compounds developed from natural products.

Simply put, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of animal cells.

Cancer is not one disease. The word is a loose term used to describe a group of more than 200 diseases. That means that every type of cancer is different, therefore their causes can be different and, thus, their treatments will be different.

Likewise, different types of cancers will interact differently with the anti-cancer drugs. This creates a hurdle in finding one effective drug against cancer. Additionally, drug resistance shown by cancer stem cells, or the asymptotic and metastatic nature of malignant cancer, pose difficulties in cancer treatment.

Normal cell growth is a natural process where specific genes intrinsically carry instructions for cell division and growth. But sometimes, due to some factor or exposure that has been introduced (perhaps smoking, radiation, viruses, cancer-causing chemicals, obesity, hormones etc), genetic mutations occur and cell growth is out of control.

Cells normally have built-in mechanisms to deal with such problems; they try to repair their own uncontrolled mutations. But when the natural repair mechanism fails, uncontrolled genetic mutations occur, giving rise to more and more of the same type of cells. These cells keep growing, and eventually create tumor.

The drugs used in chemotherapy enter into the cell, and either stop cell growth or kill it. But because these drugs can also at times affect healthy cells, a process called targeted therapy was introduced in cancer treatments. In targeted therapy, drug molecules are specially designed to identify cancer cells, so that they can selectively bind to diseased cells only. The would drugs then act on the molecules/chemicals responsible for cancer cell growth, and stop the cell multiplication.

In a project funded by the Terry Fox Foundation, I work with a Brock University research team — led by chemist and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair Tomas Hudlicky — that has been striving to develop more effective synthetic drugs that will improve the outcomes of targeted therapy. The potential drug molecule developed in our lab will be tethered on to specific proteins that can identify cancer cells. Once the drug-protein couple enters a patient’s body, it will seek out the cancerous cells and act on them to stop their growth.

The quest for an appropriate organic compound that would bind to and destroy a particular type of cancer cell, while sparing a person’s healthy cells, is long and arduous. It requires diligence and unwavering patience for synthetic chemists, since hundreds of differently composed compounds must be synthesized and screened in order to find that elusive “hit compound.”

After each failure, tactics must be changed and fresh ideas incorporated, then the quest starts over again. Although we love this job and are committed to it, researchers are humans, and sometimes we can get depressed with repeated failures. At times like this, we need something to pick us up and motivate us.

One of the greatest inspirations of all is Terry Fox. It is absolutely breath-taking to realize that this young man of 19, who had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma and had had his right leg amputated, decided to defy the odds and stand up against one of the deadliest diseases of human history.

The quest for a complete cure of cancer has been ongoing for about seven decades, and is not over yet. But at some point it will be successfully concluded. There is an enormous number of determined people researching in this area, coming up with new techniques and ideas. After all, nothing is permanent in this world; and this rule apply to diseases too!

Thinking about Terry gives me — gives us — the courage and energy to stand again and march towards our goal.

Mukund Ghavre is a chemistry researcher at Brock University, where on Sept. 17 he will step away from his research long enough to participate in the annual Terry Fox Run. 



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