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What Science Knows about Cancer

What Science Knows about Cancer

Professor David Sadava, Ph.D.
City of Hope Medical Center, Claremont Colleges

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What Science Knows about Cancer

Course No. 1956
Professor David Sadava, Ph.D.
City of Hope Medical Center, Claremont Colleges
Share This Course
4.6 out of 5
32 Reviews
87% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1956
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Course Overview

Few global challenges touch humanity with as much immediacy or ubiquity as cancer. Over the course of their lifetime, one in three people in North America, Europe, and Australia will develop a malignancy, and in the United States alone, the direct and indirect costs of cancer amount to billions of dollars a year. The sad truth is that almost every family in the Western world will be affected by cancer at some point in their lives.

The good news is that the landscape of cancer treatment and prevention is a vastly different place than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to a relatively new focus on molecular medicine, scientists have been on a highly encouraging trajectory of discovery. And with each passing day, researchers are gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved, poising them on the brink of tremendous breakthroughs.

With the wealth of findings in this field, it is not surprising to read contradictory reports about causes and treatments. It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, but if we arm ourselves with a scientific understanding of cancer, we'll not only have the tools to evaluate emerging news, we'll be in a much better position to prevent and grapple with the disease.

What Science Knows about Cancer reports from the front lines of the war on cancer with a clear and scientifically precise—yet thoroughly accessible—guide to how the disease develops, thrives, and can potentially be conquered. Taught by David Sadava, a laboratory researcher at the City of Hope Medical Center and an award-winning professor of biology at The Claremont Colleges, this fascinating 24-lecture course leaves no stone unturned in explaining the amazing ways cancer works to subvert the body's normal functioning, and how therapies can reverse these insidious processes.

Using a highly visual, step-by-step approach that takes you deep inside the cancer cell, Professor Sadava answers your questions about cancer and debunks myths with a level of specificity, scientific rigor, and candor that is rare to find.

With his expert guidance, you'll explore

  • why cancer rates have risen over the last century;
  • what agents and conditions cause cancer, from tobacco and radiation to diet and female reproductive status;
  • how DNA changes underlie the development of cancer;
  • the specific genes involved in making cells progress, divide, and spread;
  • the methods physicians employ when battling cancer; and
  • how behavior modification, drugs, vaccines, and compounds found in natural substances may help prevent cancer.
Cancer from a Scientist's Perspective

Professor Sadava presents cancer at the macro and microscopic levels as he lays bare the crisis it creates for both humanity and the human body. You'll venture inside cells to learn the conditions that lead them to become specialized or cancerous, and how the mechanisms that facilitate tumor growth are analogous to the gas pedal and brakes in your car.

Methodically organized and delivered, What Science Knows about Cancer uses a six-part framework to investigate the multistage model of cancer.

  • Part one begins with an overview of the challenge cancer presents for society and an examination of the history of cancer dating back over 3,000 years.
  • Part two delves into how scientists use epidemiology to identify environmental agents of cancer, and introduces how spontaneous changes in the expression and duplication of DNA can go awry.
  • Part three looks at tumors—from how they grow and metastasize to how they're diagnosed, staged, and graded by physicians.
  • Part four reveals recent discoveries about genes and inherited cancers, cancer-causing viruses, and the molecular biology of cancer.
  • Part five describes how the three major methods of treatment—surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—have evolved over time and are frequently used in combination.
  • Part six offers a frank analysis of the state of cancer screening and prevention.

While you'll touch on specific forms of the disease, these lectures aren't designed to examine the prognosis or therapies of individual cancers. Rather, they empower you to understand how the disease operates and how, through advances in science, it might be stopped.

A Wealth of Eye-Opening Discoveries

This course will captivate you with descriptions of new targeted therapies coming from the realm of molecular medicine, such as drugs that attack DNA and other cell processes, and vaccines that harness a patient's own white blood cells, prompting the immune system to reject a tumor. And you'll be filled with a sense of optimism as you're introduced to treatments in the early stages of development, such as tumor-specific viruses that destroy tumor cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.

Here's a glimpse of some of the other surprising information you'll encounter:

  • About 10% of cancer is initiated by viruses, and a roughly similar percentage of cancer is inherited.
  • Things many people assume causes cancer—such as pollutants and food additives—may not be as significant as natural substances in foods and normal reproductive processes.
  • Public policies such as home radon testing may be based on false assumptions about the risks for cancer.
  • Tumors can recruit their own blood supply through the process of angiogenesis.
  • Some cancer occurs spontaneously, simply because of imperfections in our chemistry.
Prevention as the Best Medicine

In addition to highlighting carcinogens to avoid, What Science Knows about Cancer outlines the natural agents that leading researchers—Professor Sadava included—are investigating for their anti-cancer properties.

You'll consider thought-provoking information on the benefits and efficacy of various types of cancer screening, including genetic testing for the "breast cancer gene" (BRCA1), as well as breast self-exams, cervical screenings, colonoscopies, mammograms, and PSA screenings for prostate cancer. Along the way, you'll consider ethical and legal questions regarding the costs associated with these tests, their rates of false positives, what should be done with the information, and whether their routine use has a significant impact on rates of survival.

As a lab researcher at the forefront of this fight who works at the City of Hope Medical Center—and who also taught one of the first comprehensive courses on cancer to undergraduates—Professor Sadava is uniquely qualified to offer a straightforward explanation steeped in the latest science. Although he is presenting high-level findings, he never overwhelms with a barrage of data. Rather, he offers a nuanced interpretation that places research within its broader context—as only a scientist of his caliber is capable of doing.

An abundance of edifying charts, slides, and animations provide a rich visual reference for the information presented, while in-depth accounts of patient histories, clinical trials, and epidemiologic studies enrich your experience and aid comprehension.

Cancer isn't necessarily something any of us likes to think about, but knowledge truly is power. Forever change the way you view and cope with this all-too-common challenge with What Science Knows about Cancer.

These lectures are not designed for use as medical references to diagnose, treat, or prevent medical illnesses or trauma. Neither The Great Courses nor Professor Sadava is responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a medical condition or illness, consult a qualified physician.

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    Cancer Is an Ongoing Challenge
    Kick off the course with an overview of what you’ll learn and the history of cancer. Discover what has transpired in the war on cancer, from the earliest theories and treatments to medicine’s relatively recent transition from a focus on dividing cells to targeted therapy based on molecular biology. x
  • 2
    Cancer Is a Major Burden to Society
    As you investigate why cancer is a growing problem in the United States and across the globe, explore the burden cancer places on society as a whole—both to people and the economy—and look at some of the most common forms of the disease. See why, surprisingly, cancer doesn’t rank on the Global Burden of Disease Study. x
  • 3
    Discovering Causes of Cancer in Populations
    What do population studies tell us about the causes of cancer? Define the science of epidemiology and learn how it can be used to study cancer in both populations and individuals. Differentiate between case-control and cohort studies, and the categories of risk factors for cancer. x
  • 4
    Some Causes of Cancer in Populations
    Continue exploring epidemiology by delving into environmental causes of cancer that have emerged from studies, including tobacco, diet, a woman’s reproductive status, medications, pesticides, radiation, and even your personality. How does giving birth later in life make you more vulnerable to breast cancer? Is the average person’s exposure to pesticides really dangerous? Find out here. x
  • 5
    DNA Is the Key to Understanding Cancer
    Take the first steps in understanding the multistage model of cancer by learning how various agents initiate cancer at the genetic level. Explore the fundamentals of DNA as genetic material, the process by which DNA is expressed and duplicated, and the ways this process of duplication can go awry, causing cell mutations to accumulate. x
  • 6
    How Does DNA Change to Initiate Cancer?
    Two types of carcinogens mutate DNA: chemicals and radiation. Build on what you’ve learned about DNA by looking specifically at how these carcinogens produce cancer at the cellular level. Then, examine carcinogens that don’t damage DNA and how epigenetic changes in DNA can result in cancer. x
  • 7
    How Do We Know If Something Causes Cancer?
    Does hair dye cause cancer? What about saccharin? Familiarize yourself with the types of experiments scientists conduct to determine if something causes cancer, and consider whether a range of natural and manmade substances with carcinogenic properties have the potential to cause cancer in humans. Conclude this lecture by looking closely at the concept of risk analysis. x
  • 8
    How Do Normal Cells Function?
    Focus on cells as the basic structures of living things through an exploration of their internal composition, particularly the nucleus where the genome is retained. See how this discovery was proven in the cloning of Dolly the sheep and consider how this is relevant to cancer treatment. x
  • 9
    What Is Different about Cancer Cells?
    How do tumors start? Find out how cells divide without normal controls in place and the nine unusual properties shared by many cancerous cells—including the ability to recruit a blood supply. Then learn about the process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and the molecules being developed to block telomerase, a protein that lets cancer cells escape dying. x
  • 10
    How Do Tumors Grow?
    What is the difference between benign and malignant tumors? What signs of cancer do people typically experience? Turn to tumor development and growth with a discussion of the methods doctors use to diagnose, stage, and grade tumors—all of which inform how aggressive treatment should be—and an introduction to the distressing processes of metastasis and angiogenesis. x
  • 11
    How Tumors Spread and Thrive
    The body does everything it can to reject a tumor, but sometimes the immune system is not only too overburdened to succeed, it’s unable to even recognize that tumors exist. Find out why tumors can go undetected as you continue your investigation of metastasis and angiogenesis, and how these phenomena contribute to the growth and spread of tumors. x
  • 12
    What Are Tumor Viruses?
    Most of us will be infected with—and recover from—Epstein-Barr virus at some point in our lives. In some people, this infection contributes to the development of cancer. Understand what viruses are, how tumor viruses can be identified, and the way viruses such as Epstein-Barr, hepatitis B, and papilloma cause cancer if other conditions are present. x
  • 13
    How Do Tumor Viruses Cause Cancer?
    Learn about molecular biology and how gene expression is controlled before turning to an investigation of the way tumor viruses use these gene control mechanisms to initiate cell division, and, ultimately, cancer. Wrap up by looking at how cancer develops in 90% of cases—from normal cells that aren't infected by viruses. x
  • 14
    How Do Cancer-Causing Genes Work?
    In almost all cancer, genes that stimulate cell division called oncogenes are mutated. But can one such mutation cause cancer on its own? Examine an experiment that answers this question, then look closely at proto-oncogenes and oncogenes to discover how they function and what they do in the cell to turn on cancers, including neuroblastoma tumors in children. x
  • 15
    Can Cancer Be Inherited?
    Why do cancers sometimes run in families? Explore the “two-hit” hypothesis for how cancers are inherited along with the criteria for defining cancer as hereditary with a discussion of several forms—including retinoblastoma, colon cancer, and breast cancer—that are known to be passed on this way. Explore inherited susceptibilities to cancer that make some people more prone to developing this disease. x
  • 16
    How Do Normal Genes Suppress Tumors?
    Now that you understand oncogenes, focus on tumor suppressor genes for a more complete view of cancer. Start by learning how the BRCA1 gene mutation in inherited breast cancer was discovered—and its implications—before turning to strategies for identifying and isolating suppressor genes to be used in therapy. Explore the genes’ functions, from repairing DNA damage to acting as brakes in the cell division cycle. x
  • 17
    How Do Genetic Changes Result in Cancer?
    All tumors are not created equal. Trace how cancer develops as a series of molecular changes, then learn how the worldwide Cancer Genome Project is working toward individualized therapies. Conclude by looking at genetic testing and considering its ethical and legal ramifications. x
  • 18
    Treating Cancer with Surgery
    From research to clinical trials to approval, cancer therapies face a long road before they become viable treatment options. As you turn to the science behind surgical cancer therapy, explore this developmental process. Using breast cancer as an example, learn the scientific principles of surgical therapy and how it has evolved. Weigh the pros and cons of using surgery to diagnose cancer, remove localized tumors, and prevent metastasis. x
  • 19
    Treating Cancer with Radiation
    Continue your investigation of ways to treat cancer by learning how radiation treatments, including proton therapy, brachytherapy, and radiosurgery, are often used to kill cancer cells. Next, explore the use of stem cell transplantation to restore the bone marrow of patients who’ve experienced high doses of radiation or chemotherapy. x
  • 20
    Treating Cancer with Drugs
    Turn to the last of the three methods of treatment with this lecture that traces the origins of chemotherapy to mustard gas attacks in World War II. Learn about the path taken by a drug on its way to a tumor, the combinations of chemotherapy used by oncologists, and how drugs are often derived from plants and other natural sources. x
  • 21
    How Do Drugs Attack Cancer?
    Some cancer drugs go to work on DNA while others target processes inside the cell. Get an introduction to both categories and learn the science behind how widely used drugs such as methotrexate, tamoxifen, and cisplatin operate. Consider the side effects patients commonly experience when undergoing chemotherapy and the reasons cells become resistant to treatment. Then, using kidney cancer as an example, look at how science has led to new treatments with the potential to target specific tumors. x
  • 22
    Frontiers of Cancer Treatment
    Explore avenues of treatment at the frontiers of science, starting with how a patient’s own immune system can be harnessed in cancer therapy. Take an in-depth look at antibodies and gene therapy as options for treatment and consider the amazing potential of viruses that target tumors only and leave normal cells undamaged. x
  • 23
    Can Screening for Cancer Be Useful?
    Why are monthly breast self-examinations no longer recommended in some countries? Do PSA screenings for prostate cancer have any impact on survival rates for men with the disease? Examine the science of screening and the success rates of current screening methods for cancers of the breast, cervix, colon, and prostate, and consider whether getting screened is worthwhile given the risks and costs associated with each. x
  • 24
    Can Cancer Be Prevented?
    Conclude the course with a discussion of prevention, from carcinogens to avoid to substances that studies indicate could offer chemoprevention in a wide variety of cancers. Learn why identifying carcinogens and preventive agents is so challenging for researchers, and look toward the promising future of treatment and prevention. x

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Your professor

David Sadava

About Your Professor

David Sadava, Ph.D.
City of Hope Medical Center, Claremont Colleges
Dr. David Sadava is Adjunct Professor of Cancer Cell Biology at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, CA, and the Pritzker Family Foundation Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at The Claremont Colleges. Professor Sadava graduated from Carleton University as the science medalist with a B.S. with first-class honors in biology and chemistry. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow, he earned a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of...
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What Science Knows about Cancer is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 32.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course Clear and well-organized lectures by an engaged and engaging teacher. Very well worth the time and money required to absorb the topic.
Date published: 2017-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The "C" word When I was younger, I avoided everything having to do with cancer. Probably like many of us do. Then my mother got a very aggressive cancer that she proceeded to fight for fourteen years. It was during that time that this course was published and I saw it, in the context of being a secondary caregiver and support person. If you have ever had cancer or had a relative with cancer, people stop talking to them, or to you. They don't mention cancer or your loved one. It can be a very trying time as the patient and family try to work through the cancer and keep on living life. It was great to see TGC come out with a whole course on cancer. It's been a couple of years since I watched this, and it's one that I will return to watch. I found this course very refreshing in its approach - clinical and fact based and a discussion about what cancer is, answering common questions along the way. If you are looking for a course to make you feel less stress about cancer, then this course is not it. It very much lives up to the "science" aspect of its title. If you do feel comfort in learning about the enemy and comforting in facts, then this course is for you. I found the professor's delivery and approach to the subject good and appropriate to the content. As an aside, since I do not see a note about what other courses I would recommend, I would recommend the course "How to Make Stress Work for You" as a companion course. It contains a lot of insomnia and stress reducing remedies that would benefit the cancer patient and his/her family alike.
Date published: 2017-05-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid Course I purchased this as I have recently been diagnosed with cancer. This course gave me a solid understanding of current knowledge of the causes and treatments for cancer. It covers cancer overall, which is a very broad subject so don't expect advice on a specific cancer. I recommend it.
Date published: 2017-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awsome Course This course is beautifully put together. It covers so much and the detail is just enough so anyone can grasp it. As a lay person who has a vast knowledge on this topic, I must say I learned a lot. Well worth the price, good length and topics covered. This course leaves you feeling you have learned the very latest on cancer and if need be, could make good decisions concerning your own health.
Date published: 2016-11-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting and thought provoking This course is very informative on the history of cancer research and treatments up to present day state. Prof. Savada delivers great content and is obviously well informed, but his presentation is at times dull and does not engage the viewer/listener as expected. Still, the content is rich with many interesting case studies that helped advance the understanding about cancer, as well as acknowledging that we are still far from completely knowing all the intricacies of the disease.
Date published: 2016-05-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from what science still does not know about cancer I bought the dvd version of this course because I like many others are scared to death of cancer and wanted to know more. The professor is very knowledgeable. I have read other reviews in which one other reviewer stated that if you are looking for a miracle cure, this course is it. I must DISAGREE. There is no miracle cure to be found here. In fact, what I have learned is that we have so much more to learn and now I understand why it may not be possible to eradicate cancer at all in the near future. This course is excellent for high school students and college students interested in this subject. It is highly technical so much so it goes over my head at times. Now, since I love when reviewers tell me whether to get the video or audio, I am happy to offer my opinion that getting the audio course is sufficient. One of the uncomfortable aspects of the video is that the professor is constantly waving his hands and that can be distracting to be polite.
Date published: 2015-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Chock Full of Info This science course has held me riveted thru each lecture. The vast knowledge Dr Sadava has collected thru research is immense. He breaks facts down with many graphical videos and charts showing study statistics and various cancers and timelines. I love how he gets into the material and talks to you as if you are present in the room. I have many family members who have passed from cancer and only one who was diagnosed who has survived. I knew quite a bit about procedures and cancer names. I had also heard over the years of protein kinase and other proteins and oncogenes he mentions but not to the degree of detail. He walks you thru the various parts of the dna structure and talks about the genes that turn on or off certain cells. Discusses breakdown and mutations of genes as well as hereditary cancers and how some can be determined thru dna testing. He also discusses various studies and drugs that are used and what there roles are in a particular study. i have sat thru several hours of lectures because each lecture flows into the next and keeps you engaged. Would purchase courses from Dr Sadava again. Wonderful lecturer as well as having vast knowledge. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2015-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Underlying Science of A Dreaded disease This course explains what is known of the Science of Cancer. Since Science itself is the process of empirically gaining an understanding of how natural phenomena work, by definition the knowledge of Science is constantly evolving (and growing). Dr. Sadava does not claim to have all the answers, but does present what has been learned through the scientific method up to the time this course was produced (2013). The course is not meant to present psychological strategies for patients coping with cancer, nor does it present a one size fits all cure. What he does present is the knowledge of what cancer is, where it comes from, what some of the treatment options are, some lifestyle options for helping to reduce the odds of getting cancer, and what are the frontiers of cancer biology research. Actually, while TTC places this course in the "Better Living" category, it probably fits better as a "Science" course. Dr. Sadava starts with first principles of biology. Cancer cells do not undergo apoptosis (programmed cell death). Therefore they continue to divide and grow indefinitely and have other nasty characteristics. Cancer cells arise due to genetic mutations which occur during normal cell division, which happens throughout our lives in much of our tissue (e.g. lungs, digestive tract, skin, glial cells in brain, bone marrow, etc). These mutations can occur at random or be triggered by a carcinogen (such as tobacco smoke, radiation, etc). Beyond that it gets much more complicated as cancer cells have a range of other properties which enable them to overwhelm our systems. Note: the genetic nature of cancer does not necessarily mean it is an inherited disease. Certainly specific inherited genes can increase the likelihood of getting cancer, but as in the course of our existence cell division is occurring constantly, there are constant opportunities for these mutations to occur. As we age, the genetic replication that occurs in cell division gets less precise, which is why cancer is more prevalent among the elderly. The research results and data presented are much more extensive than this short summary, which is why the course is valuable. Dr. Sadava does an excellent job of showing the data from the research to support the conclusions in most incidences. He covers many research studies, so short of extending the course to double its length and twice its depth he cannot present all of the data. But the data and citations he does present give one confidence that there is science behind all of his conclusions. He is also very good about showing null or inconclusive results. For example, though diet is suspected to be the second leading cause of cancer (after smoking) and cancer has been shown to be more likely with obesity, Dr. Sadava does show that specific dietary studies have been inconclusive. I truly appreciate his showing the data to support his conclusions given the bold pronouncements often made about health and treatments (particularly with respect to cancer) with little to no data and based largely on "pseudoscience". It is also refreshing to hear him honestly show the data on the effectiveness of cancer screens; some tests like Pap smears have been very effective while others, like PSA test have been less so. While Dr. Sadava does talk about pharmaceutical treatments he does so objectively without the same kind of "cure all" hype that often is inferred by Big Pharma. This helps a patient or potential patient become more informed in working with their doctor about treatment. Dr. Sadava gives a well organized presentation. His presentations skills are OK but not among the best of TTC instructors. His pace varies, sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow. He uses good body language to emphasize points but sometimes his hand waving is excessive and distracting. The production quality is excellent with very good photographs and illustrations showing the differences between normal cells and tissues and cancer cells/tissues. The graphs of data are much appreciated. Despite a long history of Cancer research , including a relatively unproductive "War on Cancer" program in the 1970's, recently cancer research productivity has increased with the significant cost lowering of DNA sequencing. This has helped increase the understanding of the fundamental mutations that cause various forms of cancer, and hopefully will ultimately increase the range and effectiveness of treatment. Much progress has occurred even since 2013. Dr. Sadava talks about how DNA testing can lead to a future of Personalized Medicine (treatments geared toward the genetic makeup of the individual) an area where progress is being made since the date of this course. One such area is understanding the efficacy of pharmaceuticals for each individual based on their genotype. Gene therapy and immunotherapy are other areas where in the future this progress in genomics may help. One recent example is the use of gene therapy to genetically program one's own T-calls to attack cancerous B-calls in a certain type of leukemia. The course guidebook had one sentence about the use of nanotechnology as a treatment, but disappointingly Dr. Sadava did not cover this in his lectures. This is another promising area where nanoparticles can be used to invade and destroy certain types of cancer cells. See the NIH website for examples of the experiments and trials being done in this area. To the student who wishes to get a basic understanding of the science underlying cancer, I strongly recommend this course as a starting point. If you are looking for a miracle cure or complete knowledge of cancer and how to treat it, this course (nor any other) will provide it. The fact that cancer is induced by random mutations and/or incorrect expression of our DNA in different ways in different types of cells in our bodies and involves unregulated growth of what are really our own cells, makes this an especially difficult disease to understand and treat. The knowledge I gained from this course makes me feel better informed to make my own life choices which may reduce my odds of getting cancer and to be better able to make informed decisions about screening and/or treatment (should I ever need to undergo it).
Date published: 2015-08-13
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