There are about 200 different types of cancer, each of which is being studied by different groups of scientists around the world. There won’t ever be just one “cure for cancer” as their are many underlying causes for the different types, like DNA damage caused by UV which is linked to skin cancer, or tobacco smoke, which contains over 60 chemicals known to cause lung cancer.
There are lots of treatments already in place for different types of cancer and the survival rates have increased dramatically for certain types over the years. Testicular cancer has the highest survival rate in men, with 95% of men (i.e. 19 out of 20) surviving five years or more after diagnosis, while the five year survival rate for women diagnosed with melanoma (skin cancer) is 90% (9 out of 10 surviving). These rates were only 70% survival for testicular cancer (i.e. about 2 out of 3 living more than 5 years) and 50% for women with melanoma (i.e. 1 out of 2 survival) back in the 1970s, when I was born, so the treatments have improved a lot in just a few decades.
These treatments, have side effects, as do all medicines we take. Because, treatments target the fast growing cancer cells, our faster growing non-cancerous cells can often be affected the worst, such as our hair cells and the lining of some of our organs. The adverse effect on our hair cells can lead to hair loss while damage to the lining of our stomach can cause nausea and constipation. All medicines are tested for adverse side effects and formulated to reduce them, but some side effects must be accepted, if it will help cure the disease.
At the moment in NUI Galway, I’m working with a couple of groups of scientists who work mainly with Breast cancer and Prostate cancer. What we are using Janus the robot for is to look at about 1500 different drugs at the same time (antibiotics, pain killers, anti-cancer, etc.), all of which are already being used to treat all kinds of different diseases, so their side effects have been minimised as much as possible.
Because we know these drugs are already having one effect in the body, chances are some of them may have another effect, hopefully against the cancer cells. Janus lets us look at the effect of all of these drugs against different types of cancers at the same time, a job that would take us months or years to do by hand.
From our early results, we have found some interesting drugs which are killing the cancer cells, but which we would never have thought to look for before. At the moment, the groups are trying to find out exactly how the drugs are killing the cells, so they don’t have any nasty side effects now they may be used differently than originally intended, and also how much is safe to give.
Because these drugs are already being used safely by doctors, we hope that they will be available for them to use for cancer patients much faster than new drugs would.