Ray D'Arcy brought us some good news, when he spoke to the pleasingly-named Donald McDonnell, Professor of Molecular Cancer Biology at University College, Cork. And Professor McDonnell got the ball rolling with a number that he said people could hang their hats on:
"97% of women whose tumours are detected by mammography, will never hear the word cancer again after they’ve had their definitive surgery and maybe some endocrine therapy."
Most of us know someone who has succumbed to cancer, or who is dealing with cancer right now and Prof McDonnell says there are remarkable treatments available for those people. And a diagnosis of breast cancer today means women will have access to treatments that are improving at a rapid pace:
"I want people also to realise that, through efforts of the American Cancer Society, Breast Cancer researchers in America, the Irish Cancer Society and also Breast Cancer Research Ireland, people are doing the right thing, they’re getting detected early. When they get detected early by mammography, we can do something about it."
One of the better things to emerge from the Covid pandemic has been a huge leap forward in our understanding of how to make vaccines and, as molecular biologist, Prof McDonnell is excited by the progress scientists are making in the field when it comes to cancer. The area that’s advanced at a startling rate in only the last three years is the area vaccines:
"If you think about it, a tumour is a foreign body. It’s nasty, ok? You think your immune system would attack it, ok? Well, tumours have basically developed these cloaks around them who can shield them. So, you know, if you get a bacteria from a puncture or something like that, the immune system comes in and eats it up quickly and gets rid of it. But tumours have evolved to actually shield themselves from that, ok? And so that has stymied or slowed down the development of vaccines, that’s one thing. The second thing is, is that they’re very slow. You develop one vaccine, you test it, you develop another vaccine, you test it. What came from Covid was a technology where we can actually test lots and lots of combinations of vaccines really, really quickly."
It’s the difference between the new vaccine technology known as mRNA versus traditional, protein-based vaccines. Prof McDonnell gives the example of someone who has genetic markers for breast cancer and how a vaccine would be the ideal treatment:
"You think about it. You have a woman who’s been told she has a genetic predisposition to breast cancer. She doesn’t have cancer right now – they're the sort of women we think would be actually perfect for the vaccine because what you’re trying to do is prevent something that may come or that is likely to come."
Can we start to think of using the word 'cure’ when it comes to breast cancer? Prof McDonnell is optimistic and, as well as vaccines, he’s excited about the possibilities of immunotherapy, which he gave an explanation of to Ray:
"The tumour is smart and it send signals to the immune system to basically tell it not to attack, ok? ‘Don’t eat me!’ [The humanised antibody] Pembrolizumab breaks that connection. It physically snaps that connection and so then the immune system is reinvigorated, ok? It’s amazing."
The conversation turned to the causes of cancer and, although lifestyle does play a part, with obesity especially a risk factor, Prof McDonnell tells Ray that the majority of cancers are stochastic, or in layperson’s terms, random. Ray wonders if we call causes we can’t figure out random, rather than just straight up saying we don’t know. Prof McDonnell says that there’s likely some truth in that, but that it doesn’t necessarily matter:
"To be honest with you, I think we are going to prevent, treat and cure cancer before we eventually figure out what actually causes cancer in the first place."
A good news story for so many people and it could be closer than we think. You can hear Ray's full conversation with Professor Donald McDonnell by going here.
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