As part of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s (ATSE) Ask an Expert series from our newsletter #TechKnow, Professor Alan Trounson FTSE answers a question from Celeste, 11, in Victoria.
If cancer starts in a small tumour then spreads around the body, can they make a medicine that encloses the cancer?
Hello Celeste ………
Cancer starts when mistakes in our genes – the body’s instructions – cause some cells go wrong and become cancerous.
Your body has an immune system to protect you from getting sick. It includes special white cells in our blood which hunt down and destroy viruses, bacteria and cancer cells.
Unfortunately, this system doesn’t always work. Cancer cells can sometimes copy themselves again and again until they grow into a lump called a tumour. When this happens, rather than enclose the cancer, the best thing is often just to take it out with surgery.
But sometimes cancer cells get into the blood or another liquid called lymph. The cancer can then traveling around the body and grow in different places. This means we can’t enclose it or create a capsule around it.
What we can do is use medicine or chemotherapy to kill the cancer wherever it is, although this can sometimes have side effects and make our healthy cells sick.
Cancer cells often have ways of tricking our immune system into not attacking them. So one of the best ways to fight cancer is to make our own white blood cells smarter to get past the cancer’s protections.
When we work out the type of cancer and how it works, we can boost our immune system by making our white blood cells more powerful with medicine. We’re getting better at doing this with a type of science called genetic engineering.
If we knew beforehand that someone was likely to get a certain type of cancer, we could teach that person’s immune system to watch out and be ready for those cancer cells. We’re still working out how to do this using lots of information from people who do and don’t have particular types of cancers.
Hopefully, this will let us predict and prevent cancers from spreading in individual patients.
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