The Big IF in Cancer

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Will the natural drug interferon fulfill its early promise?

It can start in just one of the body's billions of cells, triggered by a stray bit of radiation, a trace of toxic chemical, perhaps a virus or a random error in the transcription of the cell's genetic message. It can lie dormant for decades before striking, or it can suddenly attack. Once on the move, it divides to form other abnormal cells, outlaws that violate normal genetic restraints. The body's immune system, normally alert to the presence of alien cells, fails to respond properly; its usually formidable defense units refrain from moving in and destroying the intruders. Unlike healthy cells, which stop reproducing after repairing damage or contributing to normal growth, the aberrant cells respect few limits or boundaries. They continue to proliferate wildly, forming a growing mass or tumor that expands into healthy tissue and competes with normal cells for nutrition. Not content with wreaking local damage, the burgeoning tumor sends out groups of malevolent cells, like amphibious invasion forces, into the bloodstream, which carries them all over the body. Some perish on their mission. But here and there, many of these mobile cells establish beachheads on healthy tissue and begin dividing, forming new tumors. Eventually the marauding cells infiltrate, starve and destroy vital organs, incapacitating and usually bringing death to their unwilling host. Cancer has claimed another victim.

This dread scenario is occurring with dismaying?and increasing ?frequency around the world. In the U.S. alone, 405,000 people will die of cancer and nearly a million new cases will be diagnosed this year. Nearly every family is affected; one out of every four Americans will eventually be stricken with the baffling disease. Progress has been made in treating some forms of cancer. Yet despite years of great effort and expense by government and private researchers around the world to understand and conquer the disease, the best that many cancer victims can hope for is to have their lives prolonged for a few years by one or a combination of three kinds of often unpleasant, debilitating and sometimes disfiguring treatment: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Two-thirds of all cancer victims eventually die of the disease.

Now, after years of agonizingly slow progress in cancer research, there is a growing and barely suppressed sense of excitement among medical specialists. Just as a fortuitous confluence of developments in rocket, electronic and computer technology resulted in the space feats of the 1960s and 1970s, recent achievements in chemistry, molecular biology and genetic engineering are contributing to what could be, in several years, a major advance in cancer therapy. If all goes well, they will make possible ample supplies of what is now a rare, extremely expensive, but promising new cancer drug: interferon, or, as scientists abbreviate it, IF.

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