The Badass Ways Scientists Want to Treat Cancer (That Just Might Work)

Written by Simone le Roux


While recently there have been incredible discoveries regarding cancer treatment, the task of researching cancer treatments can often feel like trying to play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ while looking through a straw, and also Waldo isn’t even there.  Progress is made in small increments after many dead ends, rather than big, flashy cure-alls. Fortunately, these are the exact kinds of conditions that force scientists to start getting creative - or even downright badass. They end up looking nature in her ugly face and going “I see what you’re doing, and I’m going to do it harder.” 

With all of these it is important to note first that these ideas are the result of teams of scientists working incredibly hard, taking in to account lots of ideas and then narrowing them down. Many of these concepts are also still in animal trial phase or ongoing human clinical trials. The idea here is not to show what will definitely work, but the crazy ideas that may end up saving us and our loved ones. 

1. Using Deadly Viruses

A recent study showed that the use of a modified Herpes Virus significantly improved tumour regression in humans. Essentially, scientists were able to use the fact that the same factors that make tumours successful at growing also make them more susceptible to infection. The modified herpes virus is able to replicate in malignant cells, but not in healthy cells. The proteins the virus releases raise a big red flag to the body’s immune system, showing it where and how to attack the tumour cells. 

The same concept applies where HIV is used to treat leukemia. This makes sense because HIV attacks the immune system, and can therefore be programmed to attack only cancerous immune cells. 

2. Shining a Light on Cancer - Literally

St John’s Wort. You might know it as the thing your hippy aunt prescribes whenever you have a case of the blues. What you might not know is that it has a super neat property: cancer cells love it, specifically one of its active compounds Hypericin. Cancer cells suck Hypericin up so hard that pretty much none is left for normal cells. Why should you care about this besides knowing that your cancer cells might be a bit less depressed than the rest of you? Because when you shine the right frequency of light on cells full of Hypericin they explode like they’ve been hit by the Death Star.  

This technique is especially nice for brain tumours, which often don’t have defined edges so it’s tough to remove all of the malignant cells in one go. By injecting Hypericin in to the site, you can make sure to get all of the malignant cells without causing damage to surrounding healthy ones. 

3. Not Killing Cancer Cells

If you imagine fighting cancer as an actual battle, you would think that the best course of action would be to kill off as much of the enemy as fast and as quickly as possible so they don’t have a chance at fighting back or getting stronger. This is more or less how cancer treatment has been approached in recent years. Doctors will try to knock out as many cancer cells as possible, using as much chemotherapy as they can in one go without causing significant damage to the patient. 

Other doctors have examined this -  using mathematical models – and realised that this is actually not a good idea at all. Turns out cancer is not the fast-paced, broody war movie – it’s the slow-paced, bitchy action of a nature documentary. By killing off all of the chemo-sensitive cells in the first blast, practitioners are making lots of extra room for the chemo-resistant cell populations to grow and thrive. This means that, while a tumour may shrink quickly initially, there’s every possibility of it growing back – and this time it doesn’t respond to chemo. 

To combat this, an idea called Adaptive Therapy’ was floated. The idea is to use much lower doses of chemo over longer periods of time, therefore keeping the chemo-sensitive cells alive for longer. They keep the resistant cell populations in check for longer while the tumour gets smaller and weaker, so that they can actually be killed off in the end. This technique has proven successful in mice and is currently undergoing human trials. 

4. Infection with Food Poisoning Time Bombs

Part of the reason it’s tough for us to hit tumours hard with drugs is that they keep a tight lock down on what goes in and out of them, to the point where there isn’t even much oxygen in there. Enter Salmonella – you know, the reason you’re terrified of raw eggs and dodgy salads. Turns out it does super well in environments with little oxygen (like your gut). 

This is where it gets cool because, thanks to Science, Salmonella got transformed from a tiny, crappy Honda of a bacteria in to a self-destructing super tank. How this modified salmonella works is it infects tumour cells, then starts multiplying like crazy – two things it was already good at. Then, once the Salmonella populates the tumour enough, it explodes and releases the chemotherapy drugs right inside the tumour. 10% of the bacteria remain to repopulate until critical mass is reached again. This means that you basically have consistent, metronome-timing delivery of drugs to the tumour, killing it from the inside out while conventional therapy kills it from the outside in. 

5. Gold Plating Cancer Cells

One of the biggest issues in cancer treatment at the moment is the side effects. We’ve all seen the complaints of people feeling as though chemo is making them more sick. This is because it’s hard to target cancer cells specifically, so the drugs used attack all kinds of other things, like your liver and kidneys. 

Gold Nanoparticles (GNPs) can help in so many ways. Seriously, you guys. GNPs are another one of those things that cancerous cells goddamn love. So, when drugs are tagged on to GNPs, they end up exactly where doctors want them to be (at the cancer cells) instead of wandering around the body wreaking havoc. Not only do GNPs make it easier for the drugs to get to the right place, research has shown that they may even enhance the interactions between the drugs and cancer cells, so treatment becomes more effective. 

GNPs can also help us fry cancer cells to death. Hyperthermia is a treatment where microwave or ultrasound waves are directed at cancer cells in order to heat them up and kill them. If the cancer cells have GNPs in them, they get significantly hotter – we’re talking 37°C increase as opposed to a 9°C increase without GNPs.

Finally, GNPs, as it turns out, also make it much easier (compared to the conventional iodine) for us to spot and diagnose tumours on CT scans, PET scans and MRIs. By being able to spot distinguishing features more easily early on, a more effective treatment plan can be put in to place.

6. Fecal Transplants

Immunotherapy is the technique whereby medical practitioners dial the immune system up to 11 to make it go completely ape on cancer cells. While this has shown to be highly effective, some patients simply don’t respond to this treatment, or they respond initially and then not at all. 

A study working with mice determined that it could be because of an individual’s gut bacteria diversity. Your gut essentially acts as a training ground for your immune system, teaching it how to distinguish which bacteria are good and which need to be killed. People with a more savvy immune system may therefore be better at fighting off cancer than people with untested immune systems. 

So how do you get your internal army up to scratch? By borrowing the poop of a superior army. Yup, a poop pill could mean the difference between life and death.

God forbid you get cancer, but I’m just saying that, if you do, your options are clear. Rather than running out and wasting your time and money on coconut oil or an organic diet, hold out to become the gold-plated, shiny, microbe-infested, poop pill-taking god you always wanted to be. So like, just let doctors and scientists do their weird-ass jobs to help you.


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