Obama promises a cure for cancer 'once and for all'
Forty-five years ago, the U..S landed a man on the Moon and brought him home safely. The effort cost, in today's dollars, around $135 billion spent over ten years.
Ever since then, whenever government wants to spend a lot of money solving a problem, the moon program is cited as an example that we can do anything we put our minds – and dollars – to.
Last night, the president invoked the Moon landing to announce his initiative to cure cancer – "once and for all." But someone should have whispered into the president's ear that the idea we can eradicate all cancer is a myth and that despite the government spending more than $200 billion on cancer research since the 1970s, the rate of cancer deaths overall has not fallen in 50 years.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday pledged to undertake a historic push to develop a cure for cancer, tapping Vice President Joe Biden to lead the effort.
Obama, in the last State of the Union address of his presidency, said America must use its spirit of innovation to help tackle the challenge of cancer.
"For the loved ones we've all lost, for the family we can still save, let's make America the country that cures cancer once and for all," Obama said.
As Biden smiled from his seat behind the president, Obama said he would put the vice president in charge of "mission control" for the effort.
Biden, who lost his 46-year old son to brain cancer last year, received a standing ovation from lawmakers when Obama made the announcement.
Following his son's death, Biden said he would not run for president in 2016, but he promised he would focus his remaining time in office on working on a "moon shot" to end cancer.
In a blog post released during the State of the Union address, Biden said the White House would focus on increasing public and private resources to fight the disease and to improve information sharing among researchers and medical professionals.
"It's personal for me," Biden said, regarding the push.
He will travel on Friday to the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine to speak with physicians and next week he will meet with experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss the initiative.
The cancer initiative will build upon the $2 billion increase in funding approved for the National Institutes of Health last year, White House chief economist Jason Furman told reporters ahead of Obama speech.
Earlier this month, private companies and academic cancer centers joined together to launch their own mission to fight cancer. The Cancer Moonshot 2020 program is aimed at developing a vaccine-based immunotherapy to combat cancer by the end of the decade.
Companies involved include Celgene Corp, Amgen Inc and NantKwest Inc.
In his speech, Obama also stressed that the United States should continue to help fight against disease in African countries and around the world.
So why haven't we cured cancer yet? "Cancer" is a generic term for about 100 different diseases that attack various organs of the body. Each disease is different, hence there is no "magic bullet" that can cure it.
Another problem is that most of the dollars spent on cancer research go for developing new treatments rather than research into prevention. This is partly because that's the emphasis in the pharmaceutical industry. Immuno therapies, stronger chemicals that specifically target cancer cells, more targeted radiation therapies, and other drugs that deal with the side effects of cancer treatments – all of these have been developed in the last 40 years and have led to better management of the diseases as well as a better quality of life for cancer patients.
But there is no "cure" in the sense that the cancer is permanently and forever eradicated. And there might never be.
Part of the reason for having no cancer "cure" is semantics. There will never be a single cancer cure because cancer refers to a family of more than 100 different diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth. These diseases arise from numerous causes, such as ionizing radiation, chemicals or even viruses. Different cancers call for different treatments.
Indeed, there are successful treatments. The greatest advancements have been in the area of childhood cancers. Childhood leukemia used to kill about 80 percent of kids with the disease. Today more than 80 percent survive. Similarly, testicular cancer once claimed 95 percent of its victims; today upwards of 95 percent survive.
Overall, during the mid-1970s, the five-year survival rate among adults for all cancers combined was 50 percent; today it is about 65 percent.
Admittedly this isn't that impressive given the amount of resources spent. Most of the success, actually, is not from miracle cures but rather simple screening procedures such as pap smears and colonoscopies, which detect cancer early when it is easier to treat.
Cures for the major killers, such as cancers of the lung, breast and liver, remain elusive primarily because of the unpredictable nature of cancer cells.
When a normal cell divides, the cell's DNA is copied more or less perfectly. But each division of a cancer cell brings about new changes in the DNA. So a drug might be able to kill some but not all of the cancer because each cell is a little different.
These facts make mincemeat of one of the more popular conspiracy theories: that Big Pharma is hiding a cure for cancer because treating the disease is so much more profitable than curing it. If it was possible to do so, I might be inclined to seriously examine the arguments. But since a "cure" isn't possible at the moment, theories of evil drug companies deliberately withholding a pill that could cure cancer are pretty paranoid.
One technology that may revolutionize the cancer game is nano tech. The bots can be programmed to attack cancer at the molecular level. But researchers can't even envision clinical trials at this point, which means it may be at least a decade before the technology will become a reality.
President Obama is giving false hope to cancer patients and their loved ones when he vows to "cure" cancer. Targeting more dollars for research into how to prevent cancer would be a good start, but promising a cure isn't very different from what hucksters and snake oil salesmen were selling a hundred years ago.