Researchers have spent the last century trying to understand the development and cause of cancer, which they characterize as a “black box.” On Monday, J. Michael Bishop opened that black box in a lecture about experiments with cancer that have advanced researchers’ knowledge.
Bishop, director for the G.W. Hooper Research Foundation at the University of California, said at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center that scientists’ early experiments with animals have given medical researchers an understanding of cancer and how cells and genes play a role in cancer development.
“It gives us an understanding that is rich to the human face of science,” Bishop said. “These are experiments of nature.”Experiments such as feeding cancer-causing chemicals to rats were performed in 1913 to detect the speed and process of mutilation of the animals’ systems.
“They discovered that our bodies betray us, but the progress was slow,” Bishop said. “It is important to identify what causes cancer and the time it takes to arise.”
Bishop said several experiments were done with chickens to study viruses that cause cancer and the malfunction of genes. These experiments included taking leukemic cells from chickens and grinding them until the cells became a liquid substance that was then injected into other chickens.
Bishop said the same experiment was also done with tumor cells, and it was repeated until scientists began to notice a pattern of cancer viruses that were forming.
“They didn’t know what it was,” Bishop said. “But they knew it was a poison that could develop in humans, as well.”
Bishop said these experiments established the point that a great amount of viruses studied, such as tobacco mosaic virus, and foot and mouth disease, could cause cancer.
“The viruses were a cause of this disease (cancer),” Bishop said. “The question was, ‘How does a virus cause cancer?'”
Bishop said that in the 1970s, it was found through the sarcoma virus that genetics start and maintain cancer that the virus created, and the virus then has the potential to become a cancer gene.
Bishop said the studies with chickens helped researchers detect patterns of cancer, but they are still not able to understand all causes of cancer from the experiments.
“If we didn’t have those studies, we wouldn’t know about cancer genes today,” Bishop said. “It all traces back to the chicken.”
Bishop said the knowledge for detecting and curing types of cancer is still lacking, but researchers will eventually find that information through studies.
“We are not where we should be today. We should be able to prevent all cancers,” Bishop said. “We don’t know all the causes. If people knew, they wouldn’t be taking risks like smoking or tanning.”
Jack Pledger, deputy director for the Moffitt Center, said Bishop was invited to give a lecture as an award of recognition for his research in cancer. Bishop was awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1989 for discovering, with Harold E. Varmus, that genes carried in normal cells can mutate and cause cancer.
“The faculty thought he was the right candidate to acknowledge for his contributions to cancer that have changed the field,” Pledger said.