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Nobel thoughts on cancer

Nobel prize winning Prof. Tim Hunt was in the city recently to share his views on cancer. A report.

PROFESSOR TIM Hunt, winner of the Nobel Prize (2001) for medicine for his ground-breaking contribution to the field of cell cycle and division, spoke on cancer at the Sundaram Medical Foundation this past Sunday.

Cancer engaged his personal and professional attention "in the autumn of 1977, when my mother was diagnosed with the advanced stage of colon cancer. It was heart-breaking as a son, but fascinating as a scientist. I thought to myself that it was as much a scientific problem as it was a human problem. And I decided that I should really try to use whatever powers I had to help understand this ugly and mysterious disease."

Prof. Hunt said that though there were many blind spots in our understanding of cancer, certain facts were clear. One of them was the contributory factor of smoking which, he said, exuded toxic chemicals that acted upon DNA molecules to effect imbalance in cell development.

In developed countries such as the U.K.and the U.S., people were becoming increasingly aware of the effects of smoking, and as a result, cancer was on the decline.

As a corollary, tobacco barons had shifted their focus to the developing countries. For instance, in Spain and some African countries, smoking was on the rise and so was cancer. In 20 years, there could be a cancer epidemic, warned Prof. Hunt.

In America, reliable statistics on incidence of all types of cancer were available. But in India, a proper cancer epidemiology was lacking. District-wise and region-wise study of cancer would go a long way in checking the disease, he suggested.

The professor said that cancer cells did exactly what other cells did - divide. They divided as prodigiously as did normal cells. And there lay the problem. Cancer "is not a disease in the sense of a decrease of vitality, but in the sense of an aim in the wrong direction, that is probably the essential property of the tumour cell."

The professor went on: "Finding a drug that would target only the cancer cells is a dream. So is a kind of diagnostic system by which the doctor takes a tiny blood sample and says, `Oh, my goodness me, you have a couple of cancer cells and if I take them out, the problem will be solved'. And we also have to remember that there is no cancer, but cancers. And treatment for one type of cancer does not hold good for another."

Until the time, we discovered "that magic drug, that magic bullet that would destroy cancer cells, but steer clear of other normal cells," we would have to lay greater stress on prevention of cancer through awareness about what causes it.

Prof. Tim Hunt also took the gathering on a tour of his work in the field of cell division, through a multi-media presentation.


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