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Will it ever be possible to prevent cancer altogether?



Photo: DKFZ, Philip Benjamin

Numerous research projects are focusing on carcinogenesis. Scientists analyse the genomes and metabolic pathways of tumour cells. We are becoming increasingly familiar with cancerous mutations and can apply our findings to improving therapy and perhaps ultimately to the prevention of cancer.
A real breakthrough, for example, was the discovery of the human papillomavirus (HPV) as a cause of cervical cancer, and the development of a vaccine that protects against the infection.
Detection and treatment of the precursors to cancer also contribute to preventing the disease. Removing intestinal polyps during a routine colonoscopy is a good example of this.
However, we still do not know the causes of many cancer types, and some of the known triggers cannot be avoided. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 30 percent of cancers could already be prevented by avoiding the lifestyle choices known to be risk factors, such as smoking tobacco, a lack of exercise, an unhealthy diet, and obesity. Preventable risks in the workplace and environmental factors can also affect some cancer types.
But ultimately, cancer is always also a matter of chance, depending on our individual predisposition to the disease and our genes. The cells in our bodies are constantly regenerating and it is inevitable that defective copies of DNA will occur during the transfer of genetic information. Our cells are equipped with repair mechanisms to deal with such “genetic accidents”. If the damage is irreparable, the cells are rejected and they die off. However, this system sometimes fails. The processes involved are embedded in the genomes and can become damaged over the course of a person’s life. Genetic defects accumulate over time and, thus, the risk of cancer increases with age.
The more we know about the nature of cancer, the better we will be able to prevent it. It is nevertheless highly unlikely that we will ever be able to completely eradicate cancer, as has been the case with smallpox, for example. The ways in which cancer cells develop are just too complex and diverse.
But the three approaches I have described will bring us closer to making cancer rarer and easier to treat: prevention, early detection and improved, individualised treatment.

Dr Regine Hagmann of the Cancer Information Service (KID) answered this question.
For further in-depth information on the topic, please visit the Cancer Information Service at the German Cancer Research Center websites (available in German only):

Carcinogenesis and metastasis: what is cancer?
Cancer research – New processes, new medication, clinical studies