Attacking Cancer's Lifelines
For 25 years, Dr. Robert Kerbel has been studying the biology of cancer. In particular, he has studied the ways in which malignant tumours interact with their tissue and organ environment. How do they grow, why do they spread (metastasize) and, most importantly, how can this metastatic growth be disrupted or changed? Most recently, for example, he has been exploring how blood vessels facilitate tumour growth.
The more he learns, the more convinced he is that there is something wrong with the way we have been treating cancer. The greatest obstacle remains the fact that cancer cells are genetically unstable, meaning that they can mutant quickly and "learn" to resist the drugs sent in to fight them. Rather than only looking for new molecular targets in such chameleon-like cancer cells, Dr. Kerbel is instead studying how blood vessels form in the tumours themselves, and the normal host cells that comprise them. If we can stop these vessels from forming, we can stop the tumour from growing.
One theory says that certain growth factors are responsible for the development of tumour blood vessels. Because these new blood vessels are biologically different from older, established vessels, and more stable genetically than cancer cells, they might be less prone to developing drug resistance. So rather than target the tumours themselves, Dr. Kerbel wants to attack the blood vessels that feed the tumours. Although this approach would not "cure" a cancer, it would slow it down and, perhaps, force it into a dormant state.
One of the paradoxical aspects of Dr. Kerbel's approach is that, even if a tumour has learned to resist a particular drug, that same drug can be used to attack the tumour's blood vessel cells. This may have profound implications for chemotherapy, especially if it is done more often but at lower doses, causing fewer and less severe side effects.