A U.S. medical study has raised serious questions about the effectiveness of a mainstay of cancer treatment. Its conclusion? Chemotherapy, in some cases, might make cancer worse.
The research team, co-led by Peter Nelson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was trying to find out why cancer sells were so hard to kill when they were growing in the human body but were so easy to kill in a laboratory setting. What they found was stunning, they said.
Damage to DNA
They collected tissue samples from men with prostate cancer who had undergone chemotherapy treatment. They discovered what they said is evidence of damage to DNA in healthy cells after the treatment. The damage, they said, makes the cells more vulnerable to cancer.
The team has published its findings in the medical journal Nature Medicine.
Chemotherapy has, for years, been one of the most common treatments for cancer. It works by killing cells that divide rapidly, which is a common characteristic of cancer cells. But some healthy cells also divide rapidly and chemotherapy drugs can't tell the difference.
The research team said it found that healthy cells damaged by chemotherapy treatments produced an abundance of a protein called WNT16B, which acts almost like a fuel for cancer cells, promoting their growth and survival. It also acts as armor for cancer cells, protecting them from subsequent treatment.
Damage could lead to tumor growth
"Our results indicate that damage responses in benign cells may directly contribute to enhanced tumor growth kinetics," the research team wrote in its report.
Though the researchers say they were surprised by their findings, many in the medical community have often expressed misgivings about chemotherapy and its potential to cause harm. The medical Website LiveStrong.com cites the American Cancer Society as saying doctors are careful not to describe chemotherapy as a cancer cure.
"Although chemotherapy can provide some relief for some types of cancers, the decision to partake is this treatment should not be taken lightly because it also presents dangers," the site warns.
Some alternative medicine groups take an even stronger position against chemotherapy but the American Cancer Society says chemotherapy has helped many patients live full lives.
"The chemo drugs your doctor or nurse gives you have been tested many times," the group says. "Research shows they work to help kill cancer cells."
The researchers, meantime, say their findings could lead to improvements in chemotherapy. They suggest adding an antibody to WNT16B to the chemotherapy drugs could prevent what they see as the treatment's harmful side-effect.