What is cancer?
Cancer is basically a bunch of cells which are malfunctioning and interfering with the complex daily function of the body. The human body is a scientific marvel. Over the course of evolution, it has developed a complex network of feedback loops that drive survival. Cancer is so powerful that it is able to surpass the work done by millions of years of evolution and claims the life of a patient in a short span. Medical Science has been trying to understand what makes them so special and what gives these tiny number of cells the ability to fight the powerful defenses of the human body. Cancer cells arise from mutations that allow them to divide continuously, surpassing all the checkpoints which are imposed on a normal cell during division. Hence, it is not quite wrong to say that cancer cells have a mind of their own.
Many years ago, scientists discovered a group of cells which queerly similar to cancer cells and yet, harmless and they were called Stem Cells. There are different types of stem cells, each with its own regenerative capacity, but they all share a common characteristic, which is their ability to give rise to various kinds of cells.
Figure 1: Stem cells differentiate to form cells of different types
As seen in figure 2 below, Stem cells divide in a unique manner to give rise to one cell identical to itself and another specialized cell. This very idea is what forms the basis of using Stem cells to treat cancer. Let’s consider a patient suffering from Leukemia, whose bone marrow stem cells are unable to produce functional WBC’s. Now, if we are able to perform a bone marrow transplant with a functional marrow, the problem is solved, right? Let’s analyze this problem. Firstly, who is going to provide a functional bone marrow? Assuming that there exists a bone marrow donor, then arises the second roadblock – donor cell compatibility. Incompatibility would cause large-scale immune-rejection and graft failure.
Figure 2: Stem cells divide unequally
Source : https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/2001report/chapter4.htm
A one-shot solution to these problems is the use of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, which are normal cells (like skin cells) reverted back to the stem cell stage. But, this is not a very easy task.
Just like treating leukemia, science is constantly trying to introduce stem cell therapy into the treatment of other types of cancers. It is important to establish a fool-proof and successful protocol to ensure that mankind can adapt and overcome the calamity of cancer.