James “Rhio” O’Connor Memorial Scholarship

The pharmaceutical industry is far more interested in treatments than in cures. Like any good pyramid scheme, a constant influx of new patients is required to support the cumbersome research and development pipeline that for decades has pumped out blockbuster drugs. However, the cost of conducting laborious basic research followed by a lengthy clinical trial is prohibitively expensive. The few drugs that do reach the market support the many that do not. In recent years, the rate of discovery has slowed, placing the whole industry in jeopardy. Major players in the field, such as Merck, Wyeth and AstraZeneca, have all been forced to undergo large scale downsizing. Almost no company was spared the need for contraction; however, the consumer demand did not shrink. These events have shown the reigning “Big Pharma” model to be untenable, which begs the question, was it ever correct?

Although on a conceptual level it seems rational to treat the curing of disease as an industry no different than the research and production of any other product, the flaw that exists within this line of reasoning is belied by millions of years of evolution. For example, as impressive as the latest Audi or BMW may be, the products of the automotive industry cannot hold a candle to the power of natural selection. The millennia that Homo sapiens have walked the Earth have shaped us into the species we are today. However, evolution operates at a glacial pace. Our genome and those of our ancestors 100,000 years ago differ at a vanishingly small number of nucleotides; the genome of a relative separated by only 10,000 years would be nearly indistinguishable. In those ten millennia though, our civilization has progressed through the development of agriculture into the highly industrialized society that much of the United States is today. Without being given time to adapt to these sudden changes, our bodies have rebelled. Though our knowledge of disease and available treatments have multiplied many times over, by other metrics, the collective health of society is worse than ever before. Obesity rates are skyrocketing, an estimated 1 billion individuals worldwide are living with a chronic viral infection, and the increasing incidence of cancer shows no sign of slowing. Of these, the last might be the most worrying.

Since 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared his war on cancer, thousands of the brightest individuals in the United States have dedicated their lives to understanding and finding a treatment for cancer, and an estimated 100 billion dollars have been spent to date. Despite this effort, there is still no cure in sight. In many ways, a cancer diagnosis forty years ago is no different than one today. A patient undergoes chemotherapy and radiation treatment to target highly proliferative cells; however, these therapies are toxic and taxing. Certain tumor subsets have been shown to respond favorably to select compounds that target specific mutations, but a general “cure” still has yet to be discovered. The lack of positive results is troubling, with the implication that perhaps all the money and talent in the world cannot discover something that does not exist.

However, as James “Rhio” O’Connor has shown us, there can be an alternative path to health. By rejecting his prognosis and replacing it with unbridled optimism, Rhio took his health into his own hands. Mesothelioma is a rare and deadly form of cancer affecting the mesothelium, commonly attributed to asbestos exposure. Therapy traditionally encompasses a variety of modalities, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. New research, however, is providing strong support for a beneficial role of alternative treatments, as advocated by Rhio. Researchers from the Thomas Jefferson University’s Kimmel Cancer Center, led by Michael P. Lisanti, M.D., Ph.D., have identified a key role for antioxidants in slowing tumor formation and growth. Mitochondria, the cellular power plants, create reactive oxygen species as a byproduct of energy production. These free radicals have been shown to promote neoplastic growth by inducing mutations in oncogenes; however, Lisanti’s team has discovered a compound that effectively combats this oxidative stress (Trimmer et al., Cancer Biology and Therapy 2011). This compound, n-acetyl cysteine, will never reach a clinical trial though, nor will it be promoted by a major pharmaceutical company because it is already found in health food stores nationwide. Undoubtedly, this is not the only anti-tumorigenic agent currently marketed as a nutritional supplement available in the United States, and this finding goes to show the remarkable potential of non-pharmaceutical treatments.

Penicillin, the first discovered antibiotic and a lifesaver to millions, was originally derived from a fungus. This unlikely source of such a powerful cure points to the need of the biomedical research community to be all-encompassing when exploring new avenues of cancer treatment. Though “natural” remedies have not yet been tested, and are out of favor with the pharmaceutical industry since they cannot be regulated, practitioners of alternative therapies have found these unorthodox approaches to produce favorable results. Herbs, vitamins and minerals contain complex compounds that may have unexpected, and often beneficial, effects. The power of these alternative cancer treatments cannot be denied, and the healthcare community needs to embrace their potential.