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A brief history of cancer and the role of genetics

Crab as CancerThe Canadian Cancer Society in a press release this week stated that over the next 15 years we can expect a 40% increase in the number of cancer cases. They were very clear in their second paragraph that: “Tremendous progress has already been made in the fight against cancer, including big gains in survival rates. But Canada’s rapidly aging population – 1 in 4 Canadians will be 65 or older by 2030 – could push the country beyond its current capacity to provide adequate care for cancer patients.” There is no increased cancer risk to the individual. Suggestions were made to change lifestyle and environmental exposure; that is not something new. The fact that Canadians are an aging population and that the risk of cancer increases with age is not new news either. The message seems to be that we as a society need to get ready for the increased numbers of cancer patients in the coming years. I had already planned to write about the current model of cancer based on the FutureLearn MOOC that I participated in. Prior to presenting the model, I want to look at a brief history of cancer.

If memory serves, one of the most significant moments in cancer research came in 1971 when then-President Richard Nixon declared ‘war on cancer’. The understanding was that through this declaration of the National Cancer Act there was a mobilization and coordination of funds to bring about research into cancer. Cancer has been known throughout history. One of the oldest descriptions of cancer comes from ancient Egypt: the Edwin Smith Papyrus describes the removal of breast tumors. Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BCE) first described tumors using the Greek word for crab, karkinos. Possibly the finger-like spreading blood vessels associated with cancer may have reminded him of a crab. By Roman times Celsus writing his major encyclopedia De Medicina in the first century BCE used the Roman word cancer. Interestingly, Galen (130-200 CE), a Greek physician in Roman times, described tumors as oncos from the Greek onkos meaning 'mass'. The English language has adopted both words: cancer to describe malignant tumors and oncologists to refer to cancer specialists.

By 1775 Percivall Pott may have been the first to find a link between environmental exposure and cancer development when he noted that chimney sweeps had a high rate of squamous cell carcinoma of the scrotum. Then in 1886 Brazilian ophthalmologist Hilário de Gouvêa found that retinoblastoma, a malignant tumor of the eye, was inherited from parent to child. It was not until 1976 that cancer-causing genes were found in normal cells by Dominique Stehelin, Harold Varmus, J. Michael Bishop, and Peter Vogt. They found that chicken cell DNA contains a gene related to the oncogene of avian sarcoma virus. This was a giant step in eventually finding the existence of human oncogenes. In 1979, the gene TP53 which produces a protein involved in controlling cell proliferation and suppressing tumor growth was found. TP53 is one of the most commonly mutated genes in human cancer.

Since the Human Genome Project was announced in 2000, a great deal has been learned about genes and cancer. The Americans have a long term project called The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) which is “a comprehensive and coordinated effort to accelerate our understanding of the molecular basis of cancer through the application of genome analysis technologies, including large-scale genome sequencing.” In Canada we have the Canadian Tumour Repository Network and one of the partners is Alberta’s own CBCF Tumor Bank. The latter thanks Albertans for their tremendous public support, noting that “97% of the patients we contact chose to enroll in our program.” These kinds of programs will allow researchers to continue to map genes involved in cancer, and thus improve its diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

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