Cancer touches us all—either personally or within our families. The National Cancer Institute estimates roughly 40% of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes, and this enigmatic disease has become the second leading cause of death in our country.
The Obama Administration’s new White House Task Force on Cancer hopes to discover cancer cures in dramatic fashion—a “moonshot.” While the evocation of a “silver bullet” cure is inherent in the language that the White House is using, efforts to improve our understanding of cancer will need to be a scattershot endeavor.
Cancer research has come a long way in the last 50 years and, as Gina Kiolata and Gardiner Harris explain in their recent New York Times article, we are now looking at the disease in a whole new way:
Unlike in 1971, when President Nixon launched his cancer war, researchers now understand that cancer is not one disease but essentially hundreds. The very notion of a single cure — or as Mr. Obama put it, making “America the country that cures cancer once and for all” — is misleading and outdated.
That’s an unfair accusation. Certainly Joe Biden, the leader of the Task Force, and Obama, aren’t trying to mislead the public as much as inspire us. They and most of us are well aware that cancer research has already moved into a new paradigm of researching the disease in its different sites within the body, as well as researching the mechanisms of cancer as a whole.
For instance, researchers at the University of Iowa recently made the news for their discovery of how cancer cells create tumors. Richard Lewis of Iowa Now gives a synopsis:
The team discovered that cancerous cells actively recruit healthy cells into tumors by extending a cable of sorts to grab their neighbors—both cancerous and healthy—and reel them in. Moreover, the Iowa researchers report that as little as five percent of cancerous cells are needed to form the tumors, a ratio that heretofore had been unknown.
Another recent and exciting cancer breakthrough was reported through Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) with the discovery that sugar is an important component in cancer cell survival. They also pinpointed a molecule that regulates sugar transfer in cancer cells and are working towards therapies that will use this knowledge to treat certain types of cancer.
Defeating cancers may not end up being a one-size-fits-all cure, but the application of an immense body of research on a case-by-case basis. We trust that the White House Task Force will work to coordinate—and accelerate!—efforts that further our understanding of this deadly disease.
PHOTO: (above) University of Iowa researchers have documented how cancerous tumors form by tracking in real time the movement of individual cells in 3-D. They report that just 5 percent of cancer cells are needed to form tumors, a ratio that heretofore had been unknown. Images courtesy of Soll Laboratory.
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