BY CYNTHIA WASHAM
In 1996, then 25-year-old world champion bicyclist Lance Armstrong learned he had advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes, lungs, and brain. His odds of survival were about 40 percent — yet Armstrong not only beat cancer, he went on to win the Tour de France a
record seven times.
In contrast, three years after Armstrong’s diagnosis, 38-year-
old Washington Redskins center Dan Turk also developed testicular cancer. Like Armstrong, he sought care from leading specialists, but sadly, Turk lost his battle with cancer a year later.
At the time, given the understanding of the disease, it was difficult to explain why Armstrong lived and Turk died. Now, however, research has shown that cancer is actually many different
diseases, each of which is probably unique at the molecular level.
This realization started a revolution in how cancer is treated, and
pushed us closer to a cure.
This special feature is
presented in recognition of the
International Year of Chemistry
and efforts to bring worldwide
focus to issues concerning the
chemistry of health.
The old approach
To understand the new approach, consider first the old. Cancer,
in a nutshell, is cell growth run amok. It’s treated with surgery,
radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of these. Surgery and
radiation are designed to home in on the tumor; chemotherapy,
in contrast, can destroy cancer cells that break away from the
tumor and spread elsewhere.
Drugs used in conventional chemotherapy indiscriminately
destroy cells that are growing especially fast, which can include
prolific healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. Chemo’s shotgun
attack leads to dreaded side effects such as anemia, nausea, and
hair loss. A more serious drawback of chemotherapy is that many
cancers resist it. Until recently, doctors had no way of knowing
who would and who wouldn’t respond.
That started changing some three decades ago, as research
began to unravel the chain of molecular mutations that cause
inChemistry • www.acs.org/undergrad