Winning the cancer arms race

Learn how JAX scientists are addressing the different ways cancer escalates the conflicts within our bodies.

For most of human history, cancer was considered a monolithic enemy — a mass that grew and eventually spread to vital organs such as the lungs or brain, eventually killing the patient. Weapons of mass destruction were directed against this enemy: surgery (accounts go back to antiquity), radiation since the early 1900s, and chemotherapy since around 1940. Some patients shorthand these unpleasant options as “slash, burn and poison.”

The so-called war on cancer, initiated with the National Cancer Act of 1971, didn’t wipe out cancer, but it did launch an era of much better profiling of the enemy. Cancer, it turned out, is not one disease but many, and cancers are best characterized not by location in the body but by mechanisms (such as the close links between breast and ovarian cancers).

Today’s search for cancer cures is more closely related to hunting down cyber-criminals than conducting a pitched battle in a theater of war. Just as cyber-criminals use tricks of digital code to defraud and delude their victims, cancers manipulate genetic code to wreak havoc on the body through a variety of mechanisms. These include hijacking the body’s immune system, activating invasion and metastasis, and turning off normal growth suppressors and cell death.

Every cancer involves genome instability — tiny errors in genetic code that accumulate and turn normal cells into destructive invaders. The scientists of the JAX National Cancer Institute-funded Cancer Center focus on decoding and disarming cancer’s genomic changes, with the goals of finding cancers before they cause damage and neutralizing them with targeted treatments.

At JAX, the cancer arms race is on!