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Q&A: The Nature of Cancer

"Along with the loss of the natural environment — where oceans and rainforests are being decimated — natural cultures are also becoming extinct, which is just as important to medicine."
- Dr. Daniel Gruenberg

In 2009, just days before her 32nd birthday, Jen Newlin took a startling call at her Conservancy office. Test results were back; she was diagnosed with cancer. After meeting with several leading cancer specialists, Jen chose Dr. Daniel Gruenberg as her oncologist. Soon after, she began aggressive chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma — a cancer of the immune system.

As part of the Conservancy’s feature on nature and medicine, Jen recently sat down with Dr. Gruenberg. Here’s some of their conversation:
 
 
Jen: Talk to me about the overlap between medicine and our natural world:
 
Dr. Gruenberg: How long do you have? Well, cancer itself is a natural phenomenon. It’s a process of random mistakes in cell division or toxic events that happen. And cell division is one of the basic structures of nature. All cells divide. So, in understanding that process, that’s how we can come up with treatment.
 
Our bodies are constantly trying to find ways to evolve and mutate. Unfortunately, the mutation that occurs in cancer cells is actually very successful — the cells become immortal. Our whole goal is how to keep them from becoming immortal.
 
 
Jen: Do you worry about the loss of habitats and species and how that impacts cancer treatment and medicine?
 
Dr. Gruenberg: We think a lot about nature in our anti-cancer strategy. In the oceans, when we trawl in ways that carve up the ocean bottoms, we’re removing organisms we didn’t even know exist that could be valuable for treating cancer, not to mention things like heart disease or diabetes.
 
But, as I was thinking about our interview this morning, the one thing we should think more about is indigenous cultures. These societies have ways of treatment that we don’t fully understand. They have their own healing strategies and some strategies may be relatable to other communities.
 
Along with the loss of the natural environment — where oceans and rainforests are being decimated— natural cultures are also becoming extinct, which is just as important to medicine.
 
 
Jen: If you look at cancer drugs, what percentage of them are derived from nature?
 
Dr. Gruenberg: Well, more than 90 percent are derived from natural sources. Actually, even drugs like Cytoxan — which you used in your treatment — comes from nitrogen mustard, as in the gas used in World War I. How did they figure out it had anti-cancer properties? From autopsies at that time, they saw that lymph nodes shrank. Of course it killed a lot of other cells, too. But it’s become important in the treatment of cancers like lymphoma.
 
So I’d actually revise that to say that 99.9 percent of our drugs are naturally derived.
 
 
Jen:  What about the other drugs in my chemotherapy treatment? 
 
Dr. Gruenberg: Adriamycin — the red drug and a type of antitumor antibiotic — came from the drug development period after penicillin was discovered, when they looked at anything derived from fungus, mold, that kind of stuff.  Vincristine is literally a vinca alkaloid, from a Madagascar periwinkle, a plant species. Prednisone is a steroid, a stress hormone that alters the immune system and is also used in other autoimmune diseases like arthritis or lupus.
 
And of course there are the drugs like anti-nausea medication that support chemotherapy treatment, and any natural medicine therapy you used.
 
We haven’t talked about Rituxan yet. Does it come from a natural source? Kind of. It’s a targeted natural protein, originally a mouse antibody.
 
 
Jen: I'm a vegetarian, and you're telling me that I was injected with mouse protein?
 
Dr. Gruenberg: Well, we’ve humanized it.
 
 
Jen: Excellent. So, besides supporting organizations that protect important places, what else can we do to help our natural world, and our health?
 
Dr. Gruenberg: One simple thing is to eat local. It’s good for our bodies. There’s less transport so less pollution and use of fossil fuels. There’s less disturbance to the natural environment and indigenous cultures. You know the agricultural source and it’s local to you and your system and environment.
 
 
Jen: Do you eat local?
 
Dr. Gruenberg: As much as possible. And I try not to eat anything out of season.
 
 
Jen: Why do you do what you do? 
 
Dr. Gruenberg: What keeps me going all the time? It’s people like you — seriously. It’s the benefit that I can give to people struggling against a life threatening disease; we can sometimes cure it and always make it better. It sounds trite, but this is a helping profession. It’s the best way I know how to be a benefit to society and best support my fellow human being.

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