I went there—A Lecture on Cancer at Brooklyn’s Genspace

I’ve had my life impacted in some way by cancer. As have all of you. Wednesday evening at Brooklyn’s Genspace, Dr. Simona Giunta gave a talk on some of the basics of cancer entitled — “Cells, DNA and the Truth about Cancer.”

Dr. Giunta is a cancer research at Rockefeller University and team member of know-science.org, a non-profit group that works on promoting science education and knowledge. Since the purpose of the talk was to help bring better awareness of the science behind cancer to the non-scientific community (of which I am a member of), I thought I’d put down the big takeaways I had from the talk. Working backwards from the end. In a very non-scientific format.

The big delivery

The real cure will take individualized medicine, but going all in on individualized medicine is not something Dr. Giunta advocates — it’s expensive and will segregate by economic status (Though, I wonder if there’s a Moore’s law for biology).

The real-world solution, the right-now solution is: Play the statistical odds. Don’t smoke, eat healthy, exercise, wear sunscreen, and don’t drink too much. Sound advice.

Why individualized medicine? Why is this expensive, far away route the only true cure?

Cancer cells are cells that don’t die. Normal, altruistic cells kill themselves off after extensive damage (think peeling skin from a sunburn). Cancer cells are cells that literally have the ability to kill themselves blocked. It is kind of like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day.

We’ve done the genome project, why can’t we just fix that part of a person’s DNA?

Two reasons.

  1. The genome project was done on a somatic cell. While genetically speaking, all of our cells are similar (minus some mutations here and there). The part of the genetic code that gets read by different cells, is well, different. Liver cells, bone cells, skin cells are all reading from the same book, but they are reading different pages. So the story is slightly different for each of them.
  2. Changing the DNA of every single of the trillions of cells in our body is not possible. The majority of cancers are due to random mutation that could happen in any cell in our body. To find that single cells before it becomes a tumor, before it acquires more mutations and divide to give rise to many cancer cells, would be like finding a needle in an haystack, or worst: a cancer cell in hundred trillion cells in our body. Yet, usually our immune system does precisely that. Sometimes, though, one could escape it’s attention…

Aiight, so, cancer is a DNA/gene issue. So why does lifestyle matter?

Mutations happen. You can inherit some, yes. Others happen because of external factors in your life — smoking, bad diet, radiation exposure.

Some happen because, well, we’re imperfect and so are the biological systems we have that are responsible for copying our genetic code. Sometimes, there are bad copies. It doesn’t matter if you stay inside all day eating kale smoothies on a treadmill, you will have mutations.

It’s not even limited to copies. It’s just general repairs. DNA inside a cell can get damaged for all sorts of external reasons. They’re resilient and efficient as hell, but they might still make an error in their repairs.

Mutations that block the self-destructing code of cells (which means a cell can’t kill itself, which means cancer) can happen during any of the thousands-millions of DNA copies or repairs that occur each day in each of the 100 trillion cells we have in our body.

That’s a lot of activity to monitor.

So yeah, there’s a lot of things that we just really can’t control yet.

Ergo you have to know the person, their cells, and the mutations that unique individual has in their genetic code. That level of uniqueness described above is staggering. That’s why using scientifically acquired statistics to prescribe lifestyle choices is the best option we have right now. Control what you can control. Take the rest in stride.

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