Because cancer is so powerful, the drugs used to treat it are equally destructive to the human body. They literally bomb the part of the body where the tumor is in the hopes that the cancer cells get destroyed in the process. The problem is that they damage healthy cells nearby in the process. The side effects of this bombing campaign are well known throughout the chemotherapy world: hair loss, nausea, vomiting, mouth sores, increased risk of getting sick, and other miserable symptoms.
But wait a moment — what if there was one daily pill that a cancer patient could take in order to treat a tumor — that caused zero side effects? Instead of an all-encompassing bomb, it would act like a “smart bomb,” targeting only the cancer cells. Some patients and experts wonder if this pill, a drug called “imatinib mesylate,” could represent the end of chemotherapy treatment as we know it.
The only side effect that the pill causes is pale skin. That’s a far cry from the often debilitating nausea that chemotherapy can cause. And imitinib mesylate may also restore color to gray hair, if you can believe it. Researchers studying the drug, which is available now via prescription, predict that the next decade could hold significant changes in cancer treatment. Many predict chemotherapy’s end occurring within the next 25 years, and this drug may be at the beginning stretch on this road to change.
It’s a subject of extreme importance. Conventional chemotherapy can be very difficult to endure and can even put patients near death. It’s no wonder, as chemotherapy drugs are basically poisonous — some of them are created with nitrogen mustard, which is a sibling of the mustard gas used during World War I. But when science recognized the genetic differences between cancer cells and healthy cells, new ideas emerged. For example, we could identify mutated genes and stop the body’s supply of proteins that produce them.
However, this is a gradually emerging field. We know about chromosomes and abnormal proteins, and blood cells that duplicate at high rates, which spread and don’t die off. When these cells clog up the body, the blood actually changes. The new drug imitinib mesylate stops an abnormal protein from working and thus stops the signal for rapid cell growth. The result: a cancerous cell stops reproducing and dies.
So there is newfound hope in cancer treatment. Instead of using powerful drugs that inflict damage and can even cause conditions such as congestive heart failure, for example, cancer patients can use a specialized drug that leaves the rest of the body unaffected. The drug, however, is effective against only two types of cancer — a form of leukemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumors.
More importantly, this new therapy signifies a new direction, a new area of research. Time will tell if we can apply this potential to the big cancers in this world: those of the lung, breast, colon, prostate, and ovaries.