The boy who lived, through cancer

The boy who lived, through cancer

Vipul Jain
July 11, 2020

At Elucidata, we are constantly accelerating the drug discovery process, but we are also on the lookout for discovering something new ourselves. Reading books is one of the best ways to do that. One of the books we came across is – The emperor of all maladies | A biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This book is a comprehensive and gripping timeline of cancer. On account of June being the Cancer Immunotherapy Month, this book brings a lot of insight and story. The following is a book review for the same.

The paradigm shift in cancer

Death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not.

- Richard Doll

If someone you know has cancer today, you would assume that he/she might live off some years with chemotherapy. Maybe even a decade. You might even go so far to think this person can be “cured”.

Rewind back a few centuries in 2700 BC, when Imhotep, probably the only acknowledged and worshiped doctor of his time, encountered a woman with breast cancer, with respect to a cure, he simply said – “there is none”.

It gives you a whiff of how far along we have come, and yet how distant we are.

After centuries we have reached a point where even a common man would set some hope at treating cancer. On the other hand, even after centuries, we have no “cure”.

About the book

The book takes you on a journey on how cancer, its treatments, its patients, and the perception towards cancer has changed over the years. From black bile to pathways, the progress made in the field of cancer is tremendous.

But it wasn’t so easy in the earlier days.

Cancer was initially neglected as a lost cause. Any doctor venturing into the idea of treating it was told to let the patient die in peace. The resistance towards curing cancer was directly proportional to the fear of the unknown. No one knew why cancer cells burst and divide rapidly.

It all started with mastectomy, wherein a doctor would literally cut the visible cancerous area (phenotype of cancer). But when that didn’t work, it was thought maybe the cut wasn’t too deep. The wild idea led to radical mastectomy. In it, the doctors cut as deep as humanly possible to get rid of cancer once and for all.

The disfigurement, the pain, and the suffering in the book are bone chilling. One can simply imagine them as an observer looking through the window of the operation theatre, while William Stewart Halsted would dig deep in a human, as one does in a steak, without any hesitation or second thoughts.

Luckily science didn’t accept this as the only way, and advancements were made in the field of chemicals. Some luckily (Madam Curie’s discovery of radium) and some skillfully (Sidney Farber’s use of folic acid). It has been a game of trial and error, only here, the error almost always resulted in someone going through hell. Be it the overdosing of chemotherapy, or cocktail drugs such as VAMP.

But the hell these brave souls went through has led the path to where we are today. Because science is based on experiments. Fortunately today, humans are no longer the guinea pigs for these experiments and mice are used instead.

Some might think this is the best possible scenario. I for one hope that soon we would not have to deliberately put animals through this hell either.

The money maker

The Jimmy Fund: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
The Jimmy Fund: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

One of the major reason for the focus on cancer is Mary Lasker. A disease that was little known about and showed rare survival increments even after years of research, was a truly lost cause. But Lasker ensured it got the attention it needed, and hence the funds for research that were needed. The Jimmy Fund was created as a symbol that represented the stand against cancer, which is prevalent to date. From thousands to billions of dollars, the investment was not easy to capture. Lasker was the one who rallied this across governments.

Kudos to the woman!

It was her effort backed by the scientific prowess of several scientists that the boy, Jimmy still lives, and is hopeful of a “cure” to his cancer.

Learn more about how Elucidata’s cloud platform Polly has an effect on, not just cancer treatments, but the entire drug discovery process.

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