FYS-155 Cancer in Society: A War Against Immortality

Instructor: Adjunct Assistant Professor Instructor Robert Garrity
Department: Chemistry

Course Description:
This course will explore the historical evolution of society’s struggle to understand what cancer is and how to treat it. The modern view distinguishes cancer cells by their apparent ability to multiply forever. In contrast, normal cells have defined life spans. To insure genetic stability, normal dividing cells are systematically killed, and their components recycled into new and healthier versions. Cancer cells overcome the normal cycle of death and replacement. If given the proper nutrients they proliferate forever, achieving a state of immortality. Thus the ongoing war against cancer is paradoxically, a war against immortality. The modern view of cancer evolved from nearly 4000 years of observation, discovery, debate, and modeling. The first medical description of cancer (c. 1600 B.C.) suggested, “There is no treatment.” One thousand years later, Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine, not only named the disease, but also popularized a theory that cancer resulted from an imbalance in four body fluids, the humors. Humoral Theory was elaborated and unchallenged for more than 2000 years. In 1855 Rudoph Virchow’s monumental dictum that all cells come from preexisting cells, led to the modern view that cancer is a disease that arises from normal cells. One hundred years later, the structure of DNA was elucidated. This gave rise to a new paradigm, a revolution in molecular biology, leading to mutation theory and cancer causing molecules as root causes of the disease. In 1971 President Richard Nixon enacted the National Cancer Act, declaring a “War on Cancer.” In some ways we are winning that war. Today the cancer field is less disparate and more uniform than ever. The best of many areas in science have come together to pave the way for a new era of discovery. Hundreds of cancer-causing genes have been identified. Understanding the role these gene products play in controlling cell proliferation and avoiding cell death has given rise to new hopes and promises. In the U.S. death rates against prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal cancers are in decline. As the population becomes more educated, certain risk behaviors are also in decline. The first anti-cancer vaccine has been developed. More cancers today are treatable than ever before. However, in certain areas we are losing ground. The outcome of too many cancers still remains grim; the incidence of others is alarmingly on the rise; and unexplained cancer disparities exist in various ethnic groups. This course will explore society’s historic struggle with understanding cancer by reviewing past and present models of cause, prevention, treatment, and cure. As always, continued education is key to winning the fight.