With many millions of people affected by cancer worldwide it’s hard to believe our national investment into cancer research has had much impact on the health of our society. In light of the dismal statistics on cancer – 1.6 million new cases of cancer and 595,000 deaths due to cancer in the US- the past century has seen an incredible pace of advancement for treating cancer.
In the 1800s nearly every disease was attributed to the workings of invisible, evil forces, like witchcraft and hysteria. In the latter part of the century our understanding of disease had advanced rapidly. By then, cancer was in fact described as uncontrolled growth of cells – or “hyperplasia.” It was already understood that cancer growths had acquired a life of their own and they were possessed by a new and mysterious drive to grow. This set the stage for the development of medical interventions that could strike cancer cells at the core of their existence: their DNA.
The first chemotherapy emerged after World War II to treat cancer of the lymph – or lymphoma. It was called “nitrogen mustard” and it could kill rapidly dividing cells by damaging their DNA. This finding launched a series of chemotherapies that are currently used in standard practice today. While chemotherapy has proven effective for many cancers, its big drawback is toxicity that arises from the killing of healthy normal cells while it attacks cancer cells. In some cases, the toxicity is unacceptable, or worse, leads to cancer recurrence that is more aggressive and untreatable that the initial tumors.
Over the decades, new efforts focused on treatments designed to be more targeted and less toxic than chemotherapy. Last year, President Carter’s cancer was successfully treated by immunotherapy. Unlike chemotherapy, new treatments such as immunotherapies harness the power of the immune system to help it identify and knock out just cancer cells. Such targeted medicines are considered a huge advancement over the barbaric mechanisms of chemotherapy.
With the advent of targeted drugs, came the wave of “personalized medicine,” involving intelligence tools that could screen, monitor and track the progression of an individual’s disease. Early this year, Bill Gates and the biotech giant, Illumia, announced the development of a test that can screen for cancer in the blood. They call it “liquid biopsy.” It can detect DNA fragments from tumors that circulate in the blood.
From ridding of evil spirits to screening by liquid biopsy, cancer treatments have evolved at lightning pace over the past two centuries. Such advances are attributable to our system of commercializing scientific discoveries otherwise known as the “biotechnology industry.” While the population is living longer (and with advanced age comes more diagnoses and deaths from cancer), there is optimism that fueling the biotechnology industry will have direct impact on our ability to manage, treat and cure cancer. It therefore behooves the public to play a greater role in supporting the efforts of the biotechnology industry in translating promising scientific discoveries from our research laboratories into applicable solutions that stand to benefit society.