Doctors will tell you that it is far better to prevent cancer, if at all possible, but if a cancer does begin to grow, the next best defense against its fast-growing tendencies is to diagnose it early and fight it with as many tools as possible.
This year, four research institutions in Israel have made significant leaps toward the prevention and the detection of the disease.
On the prevention side, researchers found strong evidence that overweight children are more prone to developing certain cancers as adults, and a plant geneticist found that altered sleep cycles may also play a role in developing the disease, according to his innovative research on plant genes.
On the treatment side, researchers may have succeeded in finding a smarter, more cancer-sensitive blood test using infrared light technology, while other researchers have come closer to finding a more precise chemotherapy procedure that only attacks cancer cells, and spares healthy ones.
Childhood obesity and cancer
A large, long-term study by Dr. Ari Shamiss at the Sheba Medical Center and Dr. Adi Leiba of Tel Aviv University followed 1.1 million average-weight and obese Israeli Defense Forces members over 18 years and found that those subjects who had a body mass index above the 84th percentile as an adolescent had a 50 percent greater risk of developing cancer of the bladder, urinary tract, and colorectal cancers as an adult.
The research, recently published in the journals Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention and Obesity, has prompted future studies to see whether weight loss as an adult can reverse this effect, or whether a higher BMI acted on a genetic mutation to produce the cancers.
Shamiss has a hunch that childhood obesity may be linked to several other cancers, including the subject of his current research, pancreatic cancer.
Plants and humans
In a highly innovative study coming out of TAU’s Manna Center for Plant Biosciences, its director, plant geneticist and professor Daniel Chamovitz, found that plants can see, smell, touch, and taste, although not the same as humans do, and that we share a large part of their genetic makeup.
Chamovitz discovered that plants, humans, and animals all share the genes that makes us sensitive to light and regulate our circadian rhythm, cell division and immune system.
When his team studied fruit flies that had a mutation in these genes, the researchers found that they developed a fruit-fly type of leukemia and that their circadian rhythms were off. The fruit flies exhibited something like “jetlag.”
“Flies have a normal gene, and we generated mutant strains which lack the gene,” Chamovitz told JTNews in an email. “There is now plenty of evidence from a number of labs that the genes we work on, the COP9 signalosome, are also involved in human cancers.”
Chamovitz’s finding could also lead to the use of plants as subjects for cell research, replacing much of the animal subjects used in research today.
Blood tests for cancer
Even though this study was performed on small groups of in-clinic patients, researchers at the Soroka Medical Center and Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva experimented with a new blood test using infrared light and less than a teaspoon of the patient’s blood that proved to be 90 percent successful in detecting several cancers.
Dr. Joseph Kapelushnik, the head of Soroka’s Pediatric Meta-oncology Department, is leading the research.
“We should be able to detect the cancer before it had a chance to metastasize,” Kapelushnik told JewishPress.com. “This can mean fewer treatments, less suffering and many more lives saved.”
For patients undergoing chemotherapy, doctors use drugs like Herceptin for breast cancer and Erbitux for colorectal and head and neck cancers. They use proteins produced by the immune system to fight infection, called antibodies, that attach to cancer cells and kill them. However, many healthy cells are also killed in this process, an unfortunate side effect that doctors would very much like to eliminate.
Prof. Daniel Wreschner of TAU’s Department of Cell Research and Immunology is developing new antibodies that attach to a protein in the cancer cell called MUC1, killing off only the cancer cells.
The other significant benefit of targeting the MUC1 protein is that MUC1 is found in many more cancers, possibly giving many more patients an alternative treatment to a wider array of cancers.