World cancer day

I guess I missed it. It seems that yesterday, 4th of February, was the world day of cancer. As many other “World day of…”, this WOC was one of these events designed to raise awareness of the problem of cancer in the world, although given that cancer is in the top two of the diseases that are responsible for more deaths in the developed world I guess that many people are more than aware of it.

The headlines I am reading sound actually quite optimistic. Death rates are decreasing due to early detection and improved therapies. Of course nobody is suggesting that cancer will be eradicated but that it will become a chronic disease. I am not sure of how much impact has mathematical oncology had on all these successes but I suspect that it has been limited. For one, mathematical oncology is a fairly relative newcomer in the world of oncology and oncology is a discipline in which cutting edge discoveries take many years (or decades) to reach the public. For another one, I think it is highly unlikely that there will ever be headlines of the kind “theoretician cures cancer”. Theoreticians deduce rules or laws that try to describe things like, for instance, cancer growth. These can be used by experimentalists to focus on the more promising areas of research and design the therapies with more likelihood of success faster.

Another added advantage of theoreticians is that they can connect research in different areas. Things that apply to cancer evolution can also be used to study the evolutionary dynamics of other diseases. Many diseases are dangerous due to their capability of evolving and being able to tell what (phenotypes) to expect in the near future from what is there now (genome) would be crucial to deal with them. This week’s issue of science carries a paper (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/315/5812/655) about how the H5N1 virus (infamous for the avian flu) suggest that only two mutations stand between the current problem and one in which the virus could affect and spread in humans causing a global pandemic. Is there anything that we know about how a tumour evolves that could be used here? I would not be surprised if the answer turns to be positive.

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