Sometimes what looks like bad news can really be good news. A story that's popping up all over the Internet today, August 6th 2012, has various scare headlines such as "Chemotherapy Can Inadvertently Encourage Cancer Growth" (Medical News Today) . . . "Chemotherapy can backfire and boost cancer growth: study" (Agence France Press on Yahoo News) . . . "Chemotherapy 'can make cancers more resistant to treatment and even encourage them to grow'" (MailOnline). However, here at ThirdAge we went straight to the source: a press release from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and saw this headline: "Researchers discover new mechanism behind resistance to cancer treatment that could lead to better therapies."
Now that we've all breathed a collective sigh of relief, let's make a pact never to allow alarming headlines to raise our cortisol levels until we've ascertained whether or not the "reporters" were out to give you an eyeball-catching story rather than a useful update on some new research. (Let's also resolve not to believe any headline that uses the word "boost" with a negative connotation. We "boost" good things such as HDL cholesterol. We don't "boost" bad things such as cancer growth!)
OK, that's settled. Now here's the real story. The release from the cancer research center says that their scientists have discovered a key factor that drives drug resistance and that this information may ultimately be used "to improve the effectiveness of therapy and buy precious time for patients with advanced cancer." The team published their findings online August 5th in advance of print publication in Nature Medicine.
The center's release quotes lead author Peter S. Nelson MD as saying, “Cancer cells inside the body live in a very complex environment or neighborhood. Where the tumor cell resides and who its neighbors are influence its response and resistance to therapy.” Nelson and colleagues found that a type of normal, noncancerous cell that lives in cancer’s neighborhood – the fibroblast – when exposed to chemotherapy sustains DNA damage that drives the production of a broad spectrum of growth factors that stimulate cancer growth. Under normal circumstances, fibroblasts help maintain the structural integrity of connective tissue and they play a critical role in wound healing and collagen production.
This discovery suggests that finding a way to block this treatment response in the tumor microenvironment may improve the effectiveness of therapy. “Cancer therapies are increasingly evolving to be very specific, targeting key molecular engines that drive the cancer rather than more generic vulnerabilities, such as damaging DNA. Our findings indicate that the tumor microenvironment also can influence the success or failure of these more precise therapies.”