It’s Daffodil Day today, August 31st. Well, it’s Daffodil Day in New Zealand, to be exact – Australian Daffodil Day happened on the 24th of this month already. The US, bless them, seem to have a whole bunch of different Daffodil Days across different states. (With Daffodils being a spring flower, it obviously makes sense that most US Daffodil Days happen earlier in the year, around February, and not August/September, as it does down here in the South.)
Daffodil Day is all about cancer – raising awareness of the disease, raising funds for cancer related research, and creating a support network for individuals suffering from the disease.
Cancer is an incredibly pervasive, prevalent disease – here in New Zealand it is the leading cause of death in the country – and I’m sure there are very few people who are not in some way fairly directly affected by it. My dad died of cancer in his liver and colon; my mother in law is a breast-cancer survivor; just about everyone I know has someone close to them who has either died from, or is living with, the disease.
In a nutshell, cancer occurs when cells in the body accumulate genetic changes (due to various factors), resulting in a loss of growth control. Normal cells grow, divide and die in an orderly manner, in response to signals from the body and the environment. When cells become cancerous, however, they fail to respond to the normal signals, and start growing and dividing in an uncontrolled manner. These out-of-control cells can spread through the body via the bloodstream or lymph vessels (a process called metastasis) and continue to grow and replace normal tissue. It is the fact that it’s the body’s own cells that go crazy and effectively turn against their host, that makes it such a complex disease to treat.
As mentioned, one of the critical focus areas of Daffodil Day is raising money to support research into finding cures for the disease.
Over the years, literally billions of dollars have been spent on cancer research, and it’s quite a sobering thought when you realise that, in spite of all this, the death rate from the disease has changed little over the past 50 or so years. As new therapies are developed, cancer also adapts and evolves, finding new ways to kill.
Now this does not mean all is in vain – millions of people have been saved from the therapies that have been developed. All it means is that there is no room for complacency, and new and more effective cancer therapies are continually needed to stay ahead of, or at least keep up with, the disease.
In my job as a science photographer, I interact with a wide range of research and technology organisations, and one of the most inspiring of these is the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research – New Zealand’s leading medical research institute, and a registered charity based in Wellington, NZ. The reason I mention this fact is that one of their main fields of research is cancer (they also research cures for asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infectious diseases) and they are one of the organisations supported through the proceeds of fundraising events like Daffodil Day.
One of the main fields of cancer research that the Malaghan Institute focuses on is Immunotherapy, which basically involves using the immune system and it’s unique properties to complement existing cancer treatments. As they explain, “Immune cells are specific and have the capacity to discriminate between normal and cancer cells, they have powerful effector capacity and can recruit inflammatory cells to destroy neoplastic tissue, and they can migrate to different tissues and eliminate residual metastatic disease.” So, similar techniques to those used in helping the immune system recognise and fight contagious diseases (such as vaccination, etc), can also be used to help the immune system recognise cancer cells and to strengthen their ability to destroy them.
Another more recent research subject at the Institute is cancer stem cell research. Cancer stem cells are cancer’s evil root – these tumor initiating cells are highly resistant to drug and radiation treatment – and the focus of the research is on finding safe and effective ways to eradicate them.
Organisations like the Malaghan Institute, and many others like them across the world, are doing incredible work to address the continually evolving threat of cancer, and really need all the support they can get. It’s a scary, scary topic, and it’s good to know there are talented, committed scientists and researchers out there facing the challenge head on.