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What's the Point of Finding Cancer Mutations?

Here’s an honest question: What is the point of knowing that a gene called KRAS is mutated in many colorectal cancers? Or knowing that p53 is mutated in several types of cancer? Or knowing any of the hundreds of genetic mutations that appear in tumor cells across the land? Unless you work in an academic or industry laboratory, what is the use of knowing the genetic mutation responsible for a cancer? For almost every known cancer mutation, there is no drug to match it with.

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Ink Well

Nothing says "I've been in prison" like an armful of tattoos. Worldwide, studies report that up to half of prisoners get tattoos while doing time. Because prison tattooing is illegal, inmates create their inking equipment with whatever they can scrounge: ink made from burned Styrofoam cups, shampoo, or anything else that can be turned into a dark liquid is injected through makeshift tattoo guns using parts from radios, PlayStations, or anything else with a rudimentary motor. And a needle can be crafted from just about anything sharp—even a staple.

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Appetite for Instruction

The war against industry-sponsored medical education is in full tilt. In recent anti-pharma news, industry employees have been barred from giving talks during at least two important upcoming medical meetings, and oncologists from Vermont, Minnesota, and Massachusetts were forbidden from partaking in the snacks provided at corporate exhibit booths during a recent annual cancer society meeting. These developments come on the heels of a movement already well under way at medical centers around the country: ending the free lunch.

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Take a Chill, Pill

In the past few years, the world—or at least the portion of it dealing with cancer and its treatment—has gone gaga for oral drugs. Ever since the stunning success of Gleevec, a once-daily anti-leukemia capsule, patients, doctors, and drug companies have been wooed by the siren call of pill-based medicine. Numerous such drugs have been approved in the past few years for several major cancers, and at least one-quarter of new cancer drugs in the pipeline are for oral formulations.

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Doctors Without Orders

Earlier this month, scientists at Georgia Tech announced their invention of a necklace that records the date and time at which a person swallows his prescription medicine. The device (which looks more like a dog collar than jewelry) responds to a tiny magnet in the pill as it travels down the esophagus. Other recently developed similar technologies include a drug-filled prosthetic tooth that slowly drips medicine into the mouth and a pill bottle that sends a wireless message to your pharmacist every time it's opened.

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Group Therapy

Creating new treatments for cancer patients is exceedingly difficult. Only 3 percent to 5 percent of drugs that enter clinical development are approved—less than 25 of the 600 or so currently being studied—and it can take 15 years to bring a new medication from the laboratory to the pharmacy. Part of the problem is simply the complexity of the science. But part of it is poor study designs, which deviate from the way in which trials are conducted in other areas of medicine, wasting money, time, and a scarce resource: patients who are willing to be research subjects.

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