Author: Jenna Windhorst
Cancer claims second in the leading causes of death in the United States. It is defined by the rapid, uncontrollable growth of cells. Even with multiple therapies including chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, etc., there is no perfect cure for cancer, nor exact cause. Though we don’t know the exact mechanisms that cause cancer, except what circumstances may increase your risk of developing it, we can understand it better by looking at cancer from an evolutionary perspective.
In a recent study at the University of California San Diego, led by professor Ajit Varki, MD, and pathology professor Nissi Varki, MD, researchers found that advanced cancers may be in part due to a genetic mutation. This mutation occurs in the SIGLEC-12 gene. This “cancer cell SIGLEC-12 gene creates a mutation that destroys the immune response's capacity to discriminate between 'self' and invading microbes”(2). Without the immune system’s protection, cancer cells are able to multiply and spread rapidly.
How do we know this gene mutation may be in part to blame for the prevalence of cancer in the human population? To back up their claims, the researchers at UC San Diego also led a study to compare cancerous versus non cancerous tissue. “When Nissi Varki's team set out to detect the SIGLEC-12 in non-cancerous tissue samples using an antibody against the protein, approximately 30 percent of the samples were positive, as expected from the genetic information. In contrast, the majority of advanced cancer samples from the same populations were positive for the SIGLEC-protein”(1). Further justifying their findings, researchers performed tests which involved programming tumor cells to produce the SIGLEC-protein in mice. It was found that these cancerous cells grew rapidly compared to the control group that didn’t contain the mutation. "These results suggest that the minority of individuals who can still make the protein are at much greater risk of having an advanced cancer," Nissi Varki said (3).
Even though two-thirds of the human population stopped formulating the SIGLEC-12 protein, the mutation still lingers and further disadvantages people’s lives when it comes to the risk of cancer. Knowledge of this mutation, however, is critical in further research conducted and future therapies/treatments that are developed to treat cancer.
As of now there has been a urine test created to detect the protein SIGLEC-12, so the patient can be aware of their increased risk of developing cancer if they are willing to partake in the test. Along with diagnosing the mutation, experts revealed that one specific treatment is using the "SIGLEC-12 antibodies to administer chemotherapy exclusively to tumor cells carrying the dysfunctional protein”(2). So, along with our evolving human nature, medicine is evolving with its technological advancements. The future of cancer therapy, especially, is ever so improving.