Deadpool, the infamous “Merc with a Mouth,” is a famous and well-loved Marvel character. A large part of Deadpool’s popularity comes from his comedic antics and the fact that he is aware that he is in a comic book. Besides this awareness, Deadpool is known for his skills as a mercenary and assassin, as well as his remarkable regenerative abilities. Deadpool possesses a similar – perhaps more powerful – healing factor to Wolverine, and is capable of healing from almost any injury. Although his healing factor is astounding, Deadpool also suffers from some issues because of it, unlike Wolverine. The main problem is tied to the fact that Deadpool is also suffering from an advanced form of cancer. His healing factor was specifically designed to keep the cancer from killing him, but it has also been revealed that if his cancer were to be cured, his healing factor would continue to create new replacement cells faster than his body required, eventually killing him.
The medical technology shown in science-fiction tends to be far more advanced than what is currently available in the real world, but scientists and doctors are constantly pushing the limits of what is possible. Of all the illnesses people can suffer from, cancer is one of the most insidious and difficult to treat, and so finding a cure or more successful treatment for cancer is a high priority in the medical community. One of the main reasons that cancer is so difficult to find and treat is that it occurs as a malfunction of the body’s normal operations, rather than as an infection from an outside source. This means that cancer can be difficult to distinguish from normal tissue in its early stages, and detecting it chemically is very difficult. So cancer can have time to grow and spread before it is discovered, making it more difficult to treat. Once cancer is established, the question of how to treat it is also raised. Cancer is caused by rapid uncontrolled cell growth of a person’s ordinary cells, and so the immune system does not recognize these cells as a threat, preventing the body from attacking them. This lack of differentiation also makes treatment difficult and risky, since chemical and radiation therapies aimed at killing the cancer cells can also damage or kill healthy cells. Besides these treatment types, there is surgery, which is invasive and not always effective.
Although cancer’s distinct qualities make it difficult to treat, scientists and doctors are working to create new and more effective ways to combat this deadly disease. One of the most promising areas of research is occurring at the University of New South Wales, under the guidance of Dr. Peter Gunning and Dr. Justine Stehn. These scientists tackled the question of how to differentiate cancer cells from healthy cells, and found specific protein variations called tropomyosins that are only found in cancer cells and stem cells. The drug they are developing destroys the tropomyosins, which causes the cell to undergo programmed cell death. This form of cell death is triggered whenever a cell has been compromised, damaged or infected, and causes it to break up into small pieces that can be reabsorbed. The tests so far have shown that the drug treatments killed off cancer cells, and appeared to leave other forms of stem cells – like heart, liver, and brain cells – unharmed. Although more tests are needed, this new drug treatment seems very promising as a new way to fight cancer.
One of the most common forms of cancer treatment is surgery to remove the tumor, but cancerous tissue can often be left in the body due to difficulties in differentiating it from the surrounding healthy tissue. There is a new tool underway to help with this difficulty, currently called the iKnife or “intelligent knife.” This knife is used like a regular scalpel, but also scans the smoke given off when cauterizations are made in the wound. The iKnife is able to detect the molecular differences in the smoke between a cancer cell and an ordinary cell, allowing the surgeon to know if there is still cancerous tissue to remove or if they are cutting into healthy tissue. Although the first test study was small, the iKnife was able to differentiate tumors and healthy cells from each other with 100% accuracy. This technology will make surgery a more effective means of treatment and also greatly reduce the risk of relapse in patients who have had tumors removed.
One of the greatest threats with cancer is relapse, a phenomenon where cancer can reemerge after treatment is completed if any of the cancer cells survived. Tools like the iKnife are one way to combat this, but that does not help people who are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy. Cancers like leukemia – which develops in bone marrow – are at very high risk of relapse, and scientists at the RIKEN Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Japan are working on combating this danger. Their most promising lead so far is a chemical method of destroying leukemia stem cells, which are very resistant to ordinary chemotherapy, and thus prevent relapse from occurring. The chemical they have discovered blocks HCK – a protein that leukemia stem cells contain high quantities of –destroying them and improving a patient’s chances of survival.