Healthy Living: Cancer
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If you must have cancer, this is not the worst time to have it.
Technological advances have greatly increased survival rates; there are new treatments with fewer side effects and drugs that manage those side effects that still can’t be avoided. Public awareness campaigns have taken a lot of the mystery and some of the fear out of a cancer diagnosis, and efforts like Avon’s Walk for a Cure and Norwalk Hospital’s Wittingham Cancer Center Sally’s Run have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research every year.
But what’s really promising in the fight against cancer—and slightly awe-inspiring—is the ongoing research into the curious travels and adventures of our body’s molecules, cells, genes and proteins. It is a world in which there are: nice white blood cells whose job it is to search out infections and eradicate them; red blood cells, which carry necessary oxygen around in our bodies; messenger molecules that carry instructions to lymph nodes and DNA that stores the information for our bodies; and T-cells, B-cells, scavenger cells and dendritic cells—all working in a highly choreographed dance to keep us growing hair and skin, breathing, fighting viruses, digesting food, and even defending against cancer.
But they are not so orderly that we don’t get a “bad boy” cell once in a while, one that decides to attach itself to the wrong protein or divide without provocation, and once loose, can wreak havoc in our immune system. It turned bad because of something toxic in its cellular life, or maybe just because it felt like it. It turned bad, then precancerous, then cancerous, and then it made a tumor. It’s like any bad boy, which means sometimes we can never figure out why it does what it does.
But these days if we know where it is and what it’s doing, we can often stop it—or at least slow it down.
And herein lies the core of current oncological research: searching out the patterns of cellular mutations that cause cancer and then matching those mutations with drugs that will arrest, slow down or even cure—without killing off healthy cells, often eliminating the need for chemotherapy and radiation. Good news indeed!
Connecticut is home to two research-intensive academic medical centers: One is Yale-New Haven Hospital’s campuses in and around New Haven, the other is the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, where the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center is located. Both conduct research on cell mutation and the drugs that can do something about it.
The Yale complex is quickly growing into a sprawling minicity of cancer research and care under the passionate direction of Dr. Thomas J. Lynch Jr., a pioneer in the use of molecular testing and targeted drugs for lung cancer. There is the impressive, comprehensive Smilow Cancer Hospital, which opened in 2009, and now there is also Yale’s West Campus, snapped up in a real estate transaction in 2007 that Yale’s PR department likes to call “the deal of the century,” when Bayer Pharmaceutical Co. decided to pull up stakes and leave Connecticut.
Purchasing a facility used for manufacturing drugs and conducting research was indeed a coup. The high-tech scientific infrastructure Yale wanted was already in place. The labs in the newly christened Cancer Biology Institute were already outfitted with equipment needed to conduct genome analyses, research cell biology and study the effects of small molecules on cell functions. The new Center for Genome Analysis has a battery of cutting-edge, state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines, the most comprehensive in southern New England. The institute is now under the direction of Joseph Schlessinger, Ph.D., whose résumé includes cofounding three biotech companies.