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Oncologist shares expertise with biology class

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Dr. David Friedland, an oncologist with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, speaks to McKeesport Area High School students about cancer statistics and cellular processes.

Expanding on lessons in cell biology, McKeesport Area High School students learned about the impact of cancer and the scientific advances that are progressing in its treatment.

Dr. David Friedland, an oncologist with Hillman Cancer Center of UPMC's CancerCenter network, visited Marla Hayes' biology classes on Tuesday to talk about what causes cancer, how it impacts patients and their families and what today's scientists and doctors are doing to manage the broad scope of diseases characterized by unregulated cell growth.

The American Cancer Society describes cancer as a group of more than 100 diseases, caused by abnormal cells that grow out of control, that can cause serious illness and death.

With the body made up of trillions of living cells, cancer can initiate almost anywhere.

Normal cells grow, divide and die, Friedland explained. When an interruption in that process causes cells to divide improperly in mass quantities without ending their life cycle, cancer can result.

“Cancer, by contrast to normal tissue, is totally disorganized,” he said. “Cancer cells, almost by definition, are immortal. They don't die. They just keep dividing and dividing.”

In cancer treatment, the goal is to induce cell death.

Friedland discussed surgery, which removes an accessible mass; radiation, which uses high-energy waves to destroy cancer cells; chemotherapy, which attacks a wide range of cells with medicine; hormonal therapy, which suppresses natural hormones that trigger some cancers; immunotherapy, which utilizes the body's own immune system in cancer treatment; and targeted therapy, which is a newer medical treatment that attacks cancer cells while doing little damage to normal cells.

“That's really the new horizon in cancer treatment,” Friedland said. “And in the treatment of most cancers, chemotherapy will go away.”

Even with targeted treatments, there are a variety of drugs that initiate death in cancerous cells. Friedland likened the methods to different ways to stop a doorbell from ringing.

“You can put a board over the button so nobody can get to it. You can cut the wires to eliminate the connection. Or you could attack the guy who's trying to ring the bell,” he explained.

Some of the targeted therapy drugs attack abnormal proteins or enzymes that form inside cancer cells. Others block enzymes that promote cell growth, and therefore prevent cancer from spreading.

Friedland said scientists are learning new things about cancer biology on a daily basis. And while strides continue to be made, there is more to learn about the microscopic world.

“Hopefully, some of you here will become scientists and figure this stuff out,” he said.

Hayes confirmed that the biology field — not only in studying cancer cells — is changing rapidly with time.

“At one time, biology class was about dissecting animals,” Hayes recalled. “Now, it's about cells. We know so much more about biological processes.”

Indicating that she teaches through traditional textbooks and experiments, Hayes said she isn't an expert in real-life biological applications. She wanted students to hear from a true expert in the field of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“Dr. Friedland is a genuine, normal guy with a lot of knowledge and experience,” she said, noting he has treated her husband Chris Hayes for several years since his cancer diagnosis at age 27. “Students get to see for themselves what it took for him to get there.”

Sophomore Amy Cicci said the presentation was interesting and informative.

“He was so detailed on the process,” she said. “I was intrigued by his explanation of how cancer progresses, especially knowing that we can delay and in some cases prevent it.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or