Cancer Watch - November 2003

Originally published in November 2003 icon

Cancer Watch eye

HRT - the new Thalidomide?

Professor Bruno MullerOerlinghausen, Chairman of Germany’s Commission on the Safety of Medicines has not minced his words. Following all the recent hard evidence linking HRT to increased cancer rates, blood clotting, strokes and heart attacks, the Professor likened HRT to the effect of Thalidomide on birth defects in the Fifties and Sixties.

In a newspaper interview, Professor Muller-Oerlinghausen said that the deaths brought about by HRT were far higher. In August, a UK study calculated that HRT had actually caused 20,000 cases of breast cancer over a 10-year period.

It is now believed that UK GP’s have been told to exercise caution when discussing HRT with patients.

Thalidomide is back - official

We have reported the possible use of Thalidomide in multiple myeloma treatment before. Now it is definitely back with us.

Thalidomide, the drug banned around the world after causing some 11,000 birth defects and severe deformities in babies in the Sixties has been licensed for use as a cancer treatment in Australia.

Pharmion, a Colorado based company is expected to win approval to sell the drug again under its original name. After the Australian license is granted it will be a small further step for EU approval.

Thalidomide has been found to control the proliferation of cancer cells and prevent them sticking to bone marrow. Side effects are supposedly dry skin and dizziness. The drug will not be allowed for use with pregnant women, and prospective patients will have to sign a paper saying they understand the risks.

Breast cancer detection failures

In a UK poll carried out by two market research groups YouGov and Double Helix Development, 40% of doctors polled agreed with the statement "I do not believe I have received sufficient training to correctly identify suspected breast cancer in one of my patients". Older doctors were especially worried.

In a second research study, half of a thousand women polled did not check their breasts once per month and half of those hardly ever. Only half of the research sample were confident they even knew what they were looking for.

Here we go again?

With headlines reading "The risk-free pill for men", Australian researchers are hailing their scientific breakthrough.

The research team led by Professor David Handelsman from the ANZAC Research Institute in Sydney involved a whopping 55 couples. During the five year trial none of the women became pregnant and none of the males experienced side effects.

The men were given injections of progestin (a synthetic progesterone not without its side effects when used by women).

Progesterone levels can inhibit production of both testosterone and oestrogen in the body and a natural progesterone can, for example, be useful in the treatment of prostate cancer.

With the testosterone limited, the sperm production stops. However, since males need their testosterone levels for normal function, it has to be replaced and an implant of synthetic testosterone is used under the skin of the abdomen, returning libido without the sperm.

Apparently it takes about seven months for normal service to be resumed after stopping the treatment.

Testosterone and prostate cancer

Many men are told that their prostate cancer is linked to their high testosterone levels. But research from around the world in 2003 seems to disprove this.

Firstly, from the Monash Cancer Institute in Australia came research evidence that prostate cancer is actually caused by Iocalised oestrogen, while a second study from the same institute confirmed that both testosterone and oestrogen (oestradiol) have to be present to bring on a prostate cancer.

Meanwhile the Singapore National Cancer Centre studies show that Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) is also linked to prostate cell proliferation. Last year we covered Swedish research that showed a direct line correlation between the volume of dairy consumed and the risk of prostate cancer. Dairy is a known source of IGF which has a strong interlinking effect with oestrogen.

Finally from the Concord Cancer Centre in Sydney come research findings that state oestrogen causes prostate cancer and decreased sperm count.

This is all terribly puzzling to a doctor who contacted us recently. He has prostate cancer and his treatment is anti-testosterone injections. However, on searching extensively for information about testosterone as the cause of prostate cancer he could find no hard evidence at all! We’ll keep you, and him, informed.

New skin cancer treatment

Researchers at Birmingham University under Professor Lawrence Young believe that they have found a unique way of boosting the immune system to fight off skin cancer, without the use of drugs.

The treatment involves taking samples of blood cells from the patient and treating the cells with proteins from the melanoma. The cultured cells "develop an appetite" for the melanoma. They are then injected back into the patient to start a chain-reaction amongst the whole immune system.

So far the trials have been with human cells in the laboratory, and with live rats and mice. But now the team has won permission to test their techniques on humans.

Oestrogen after the menopause

Another new wonder drug is here. This time the headlines were for Anastrozole, which researchers believe could reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in post-menopausal women.

But don’t hold your breath. Professor Jack Cuzick of Cancer Research UK is only just starting the 10-year trial with 10,000 women who are all healthy but for one reason or another have increased risk (e.g. sister or mother has had breast cancer).

Anastrozole, like Tamoxifen, works by interfering with the action of oestrogen. Whilst Tamoxifen prevents it binding with receptor sites on healthy cells, Anastrozole actually cuts back oestrogen production in post menopausal women.

(Ed. It’s interesting that the rationale behind such products as HRT has always been that post menopause women are short of oestrogen - but then we always knew that wasn’t actually correct, didn’t we?!).

Melanoma - sunscreen and the pill

With sun creams and lotions a 146 million business in the UK alone, a UK Professor, Roy Saunders, has warned that they may not protect fully against UVA. After a 13 year study Professor Saunders from Mount Vernon has concluded that none of the sun creams tested was more than 80% effective against UVA. Originally UVB was thought to be the apparent danger in melanoma, but now more focus is being placed on UVA.

Meanwhile the National Cancer Institute in the USA has confirmed that women who are on the oestrogen pill have twice the risk of melanoma as those not on the pill when they go in the sun.

New hope for brain tumours?

An experimental drug is about to go into test in four Cancer Centres in the USA (Anderson, UCLA, UCSF and Dukes). 110 patients are being recruited.

Encouraging results were obtained at stage 1 trials on glioblastoma patients, with the blocking of epidermal growth factor (EG FR), which is critical to cell growth in many cancers. The "mild" side effects noted in the first trial (skin rash and diarrhoea) provided the conclusion that Tarceva was working effectively.

Manufacturers claim that Tarceva is very targeted and, has no secondary effect on surrounding cells and bone marrow unlike current brain tumour drugs.

A gene clue to prostate cancer

Some men seem to be more prone to the harmful effects of cancer-causing agents (BJC Oct 13th).

US scientists from the Wake Forest University of Medicine in North Carolina found that a gene CYP1B1 (of which there are 13 variants) had the ability, depending upon its form, to respond to or protect from environmental toxins or natural hormones. Dr Xu, team leader, said "We know that this gene interacts with cancer causing chemicals". One cluster of the gene variants was far more common in men with prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer affects 24,700 men each year in the UK and Professor Alan Markham of Cancer Research UK says "little is known about what causes the disease".

To sleep, perchance to beat cancer!

Professor David Spiegel from Stanford Medical Centre in California has put together evidence that how people sleep affects their hormone balance and could be linked to cancer.

One study found cortisol, a hormone which peaks around dawn, can regulate the immune system and the cells that attack cancer cells, whilst melatonin produced about 90 minutes into sleep is an active antioxidant and can slow production of oestrogen, which is linked to certain cancers.

Pre-surgical treatment for colon cancer

Assistant Professor Crane of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre is publishing a study which shows that where chemotherapy and radiation are used on advanced rectal cancer before surgery, there is more chance of preserving the anal sphincter, thus limiting the need for colostomy bags and the like.

(International Journal of Radiation Oncology - September 2003).

Cancer Watch - March-April 2004
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