Cancer is not one disease. It has always been inaccurate to talk about “winning the war on cancer” since it is not one enemy. Cancer is many enemies, each with unique cellular identities and patterns of behavior. Yet, it seems we are winning many more battles in this war on many enemies – and that is definitely news to celebrate.
Dr. Robin L. Smith is founder and chairman of Cura Foundation and Stem for Life and a pioneer in regenerative medicine. She writes of the advances in cancer treatment in The Wall Street Journal. She tells us fifty years have passed since President Nixon declared war on cancer in his 1971 State of the Union address. “The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that . . . took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease.” Notwithstanding the inaccuracy of his description of cancer as a singular disease, we are closer to that goal than ever before.
Some statistics are useful. Cancer, in one form or another, killed 10 million people world-wide last year, and doctors diagnosed 19 million new cases. Yet scientists have made startling progress in understanding, preventing and treating it. Here are some of those achievements:
- Vaccines – New vaccines against human papillomavirus, which causes cervical and throat cancer, are in late-stage trials. Scientists are also testing vaccines for melanoma, leukemia, lung and renal cancers.
- Blood test screening – In five years there may be a simple blood test costing less than $500 that can detect 70% of all cancers in the early stages. When patients with breast, prostate and thyroid cancer are diagnosed early, their five-year survival rates are 99%.
- Gene editing – New Crispr gene-editing technology deploys a molecular defense system borrowed from bacteria, which use this system to kill invading viral cells by destroying their DNA. Scientists are using Crispr to repair or rewrite flawed genes. This therapy cured sickle-cell anemia in the first three patients to receive it. Many trials of Crispr therapies in the U.S. now are in Phase 2 for leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma and more. China is currently experimenting with Crispr to treat lung cancer with some promising results.
- Immunology – Immunologist Carl June pioneered the use of CAR T-cell therapy to fight HIV in the 1990s, after which simpler drugs arose and turned AIDS into a chronic, treatable disease, like high blood pressure. Now this therapy is used against breast cancer and leukemia and shows broad promise.
- Stem Cells – Celularity is a company exploring the use of placental stem cells to replace or repair defective genes at the heart of major diseases. Dr. Robert Hariri, CEO of Celularity, discovered that postbirth placenta can be a rich source of stem, progenitor and immune cells, which can be turned into two kinds of weapons against disease: genetically modified T-cells to target specific antigens and recently discovered “natural killer” (NK) cells that may fight broader targets in cancer and virally infected cells. Best of all, the placenta can provide T-cells and NK cells for all patients without the need for donor matching.
These are encouraging developments in our understanding and treatment of the many types of cancer that can ravage the human body. It is exciting to consider what the future might bring, but we must also beware the compromise of our ethical standards in the search for these new cancer treatments. For instance, we must never be willing to sacrifice life, through abortions, just to provide sufficient sources of human placenta for cancer research and treatment.
If you are facing cancer treatment today, you are much better off than you would have been twenty years ago. With such important advances as above, we will all be even better off if we face cancer twenty years from now.