Body & Fitness

Medical miracles

5 new finds

All over the world, dedicated scientists are spending countless hours trying to figure out how to beat cancer. They’re finding out more and more about how the disease works, along with substances and treatments that may be able to halt its progress, and ways of diagnosing it before it does serious damage.

Here are some of their recent findings:

1. Breath test

Your breath could provide clues to whether you’re in the early stages of cancer. Scientists say certain chemicals in your breath may indicate that you have the disease and they are working on tests to use these chemicals to help diagnose cancer early. This could save millions of lives.

Researchers at Swansea University in Wales are following up on studies that show having high concentrations of chemicals called volatile organic compounds in your breath is linked with having cancer. These chemicals are given off by your body when something is going wrong and may be one of the very first signs that you have a serious illness.

The scientists are trying to develop a test that involves breathing onto a strip of specially treated paper. This would reveal if you were giving off any of these compounds and could mean your cancer is diagnosed in its early stages, often before any symptoms are noticed. In many cases, the earlier cancer is found, the better your chance of recovery.

Not only could a breath test detect cancer earlier than blood or urine testing, but it could also be cheaper, easier to carry out and far less uncomfortable than being pricked with needles. The test might also be able to pick up other serious illnesses, including diabetes and hepatitis.

Meanwhile, US scientists have been working on a breath test designed to detect the early stages of lung cancer. It was able to detect the disease in just under three-quarters of sufferers in a trial.

2. Tiny torpedo It’s hoped a tiny “torpedo” that whizzes through the body to seek and destroy tumours could be the latest weapon in the fight against cancer.

The device, which is much smaller than a human hair, can be loaded with anti-cancer drugs. It is able to find cancerous tissues (which it can tell apart from the healthy ones), attaches itself to them and releases the drugs. It very cleverly contains a protein that will stick to cancer cells but not healthy ones, which means cancer-free tissues won’t be affected by the strong drugs.

The fact that it can target tumours directly means it could be very effective, say the researchers at the oassachusetts Institute of Technology, who are leading the project to develop the torpedo.

They say many drug treatments aren’t successful because they don’t reach the cancerous tissue in time, or they’re not strong enough to kill it off. Because the torpedo can pinpoint tumours, it can go straight to where it is needed.

3. Jam packed Scientists are investigating the possibility that an ingredient found in jam may help stop cancer spreading. Pectin, a natural fibre found in fruit and vegetables, is used as a gelling agent in foods like jam. Researchers have found that it may release a cancer-fighting molecule.

A US study found that when prostate cancer cells were exposed to pectin, up to 40% died. Studies on rats suggest that pectin may also slow the growth of lung and colon cancers. However, doctors warn that eating large amounts of pectin-containing jam is not a good idea because it has a high sugar content. They are looking into other ways of using it to target cancers. Pectin is also found in yoghurt and milk.

** 4. Hot shot

** A leading medical expert believes it may be possible to develop a vaccine that would help to protect against breast cancer.

Professor Valerie Beral of oxford University, says scientists should be using the already known fact that breastfeeding decreases a woman’s risk of getting the disease to create an injection or pill that mimics the effects of breastfeeding.

A variety of studies have shown that women who have more babies, and who breastfeed for more than a year of their life are 5% less likely to develop this type of cancer. It’s thought that this is due to hormones that are released when a woman is pregnant or breastfeeding.

Professor Beral believes that it will be possible for cancer researchers to develop a jab which will imitate those hormonal changes linked with breastfeeding.

5. Killer vitamin It has been suggested for many years that large doses of vitamin C may help to kill off cancer cells, and a recent US study could back up this theory.

The research found that injecting large amounts of vitamin C into laboratory mice with aggressive and hard-to-treat tumours caused the cancers to shrink by between 41% to 53%.

The scientists say vitamin C works by causing a build-up in the body of hydrogen peroxide (the same chemical found in bleach), which kills off tumours. The researchers also say the hydrogen peroxide doesn’t affect healthy tissue. Apparently, the vitamin needs to be injected because it is more effective if it goes straight into the bloodstream. These results have had a mixed reaction.

While some medical experts say the research supports findings made more than 30 years ago by double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling as well as anecdotal evidence from therapists around the world, including New Zealand, who already use large doses of injectable vitamin C to fight cancer, many doctors are cautious because most of the studies were done on animals, not humans. They also cite more recent research suggesting that the high levels of antioxidants in vitamin C can actually make radiotherapy and chemotherapy less effective.

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