Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells coupled with malignant behavior: invasion and metastasis. Cancer is thought to be caused by the interaction between genetic susceptibility and environmental toxins.
In the broad sense, most ''chemotherapeutic'' drugs work by impairing mitosis (cell division), effectively targeting fast-dividing cells. As these drugs cause damage to cells they are termed ''cytotoxic''. Some drugs cause cells to undergo apoptosis (so-called "programmed cell death").
Scientists have yet to identify specific features of malignant and immune cells that would make them uniquely targetable (barring some recent examples, such as the Philadelphia chromosome as targeted by imatinib). This means that other fast-dividing cells, such as those responsible for hair growth and for replacement of the intestinal epithelium (lining), are also often affected. However, some drugs have a better side effect profile than others, enabling doctors to adjust treatment regimens to the advantage of patients in certain situations.
As chemotherapy affects cell division, tumors with high ''growth fractions'' (such as acute myelogenous leukemia and the aggressive lymphomas, including Hodgkin's disease) are more sensitive to chemotherapy, as a larger proportion of the targeted cells are undergoing cell division at any time. Malignancies with slower growth rates, such as indolent lymphomas, tend to respond to chemotherapy much more modestly.
Drugs affect "younger" tumors (i.e., more differentiated) more effectively, because mechanisms regulating cell growth are usually still preserved. With succeeding generations of tumor cells, differentiation is typically lost, growth becomes less regulated, and tumors become less responsive to most chemotherapeutic agents. Near the center of some solid tumors, cell division has effectively ceased, making them insensitive to chemotherapy. Another problem with solid tumors is the fact that the chemotherapeutic agent often does not reach the core of the tumor. Solutions to this problem include radiation therapy (both brachytherapy and teletherapy) and surgery.
Over time, cancer cells become more resistant to chemotherapy treatments. Recently, scientists have identified small pumps on the surface of cancer cells that actively move chemotherapy from inside the cell to the outside. Research on p-glycoprotein and other such chemotherapy efflux pumps, is currently ongoing. Medications to inhibit the function of p-glycoprotein are undergoing testing as of June, 2007 to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy.
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