Cancer is a disease that has affected millions of people all over the world – in fact, in 2020, there were a total of 18.1 million cancer cases worldwide.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in most countries, and scientists have been working for decades to find a cure. The year 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the declaration of War on Cancer by president Richard Nixon.
What have we achieved since then? Are we any closer to finding a cure for cancer?
World cancer research has come a long way in the past few decades. Scientists have made many breakthroughs in understanding the biology of cancer, and there are now more treatment options available than ever before.
This blog post will discuss why we haven’t found curative treatments for cancer and what can be done to make this a reality.
Cancer cure obstacles
Curing cancer has long been a synonym for finding medicine’s “holy grail.”
There are several reasons why curing cancer is such a difficult task. Let’s explore some of them.
Not just one disease
Cancer is a term used for more than 100 different diseases that affect different parts of the body. Even though science is getting closer to finding commonalities in cancer, it is near-impossible to find a single cure that will work for all types of cancer.
Each type of cancer has its own biology and requires its own specific treatment. For example, lung cancer is treated very differently from ovarian cancer. This is why it is so important for scientists to continue researching different types of cancer and understanding how they work.
Cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of cells as a result of DNA damage or damage to the genetic structure.
Two cancers of the same organ can respond differently to standard treatment. These differences are attributed to the genetic mutations that occur in cancer cells.
Genetic mutations in cancer cells mean that cells of different tumors can respond to treatment differently. If specific therapy kills one type of cancer cell in a certain tumor, it may not work on another kind of cancer cell in a neighboring tumor.
These mutations allow cancer cells to grow and divide uncontrollably, and sometimes cells become resistant to treatment.
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the DNA sequence.
In addition to genetic mutations, cancer cells can also acquire epigenetic mutations. Epigenetic changes can turn genes “on” or “off”. For example, if tumor suppressing genes in a cell are turned off, it can lead to cancer development.
Epigenetic abnormalities introduce a new level of complexity to cancer research, and scientists are still working to understand how they contribute to the development and progression of the disease.
However, at the same time, epigenetic changes are potentially reversible. This means that it may be possible to target them with therapy.
Cancer cells are good at staying alive
Cancer cells do not behave like normal cells. Whereas normal cells die after a certain number of divisions, cancer cells can keep dividing.
This is because cancer cells have lost the ability to die (apoptosis) as they should. Some cancer cells are so good at staying alive that they can even mutate to survive in hostile environments, such as when surrounded by radiation during radiation therapy.
This makes it very difficult to kill cancer cells with treatment and is one of the main reasons cancer is so hard to cure.
Some cancer cells are also very good at hiding from the immune system. This means that they can survive for a long time without being detected by the body’s defenses.
What have we achieved so far?
It may seem that, in the last 50 years, we have not made much progress in the fight against cancer. However, while it may be true for some cancer types, science has made significant strides in understanding and treating others.
Here are some of the most important breakthroughs in cancer research that forever changed the way we think about cancer:
- In the 1970s, human oncogenes were discovered. These genes can cause a normal cell to become a cancer cell in specific circumstances. The first selective estrogen receptor modular (SERM) – Tamoxifen – was approved for breast cancer therapy.
- In the 1980s, scientists discovered the first tumor suppressor genes. These genes help to prevent cancer from developing. A link between certain types of HPV and cervical cancer was established, and breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy) was introduced as an alternative to mastectomy.
- The 1990s saw the development of immunotherapy, which uses specific drugs to target and kill cancer cells. The first-ever monoclonal antibody (Rituximab) was approved to treat Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, marking a turning point in cancer therapy.
- In the 2000s, a drug called Imatinib completely transformed the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. What was once a death sentence has become a chronic and manageable disease. The first-ever vaccine for cancer prevention (Gardasil) was also developed to prevent cervical cancer.
- More recently, in the 2010s, we have seen amazing discoveries in cancer research, such as identifying tumor neoantigens and developing CRISPR-Cas gene-editing technology. This technology has the potential to cure cancer completely. Personalized and highly targeted therapy is becoming more and more common.
Overall, we’ve come a long way since the National Cancer Act was introduced in 1971. At that time, the vast majority of the public was still uncertain whether the cancer was contagious or not. The disease was shrouded in mystery and terror. There were even reports of families making their loved ones with cancer eat from paper plates and with plastic utensils for fear that the cancer patient was a source of contamination.
Since then, we have made a lot of progress. We now know that cancer is not a curse or a punishment but a disease that can be treated and managed. And with the incredible advances in cancer research that we are seeing today, we can be hopeful that we will one day see a world without cancer.
What is next?
Cancer research is experiencing some groundbreaking changes in this new COVID-19 era. We’ve seen first-hand how clinical trials can be expedited to test potential new treatments. This can be applied to other diseases, not just viral infection prevention.
Diversity in trials is another important focus, as the medical world strives to include more patients from different backgrounds to get better data. This will help find better cancer treatments and lessen the gap between other populations when it comes to health outcomes.
Personalization of cancer therapy is bound to continue, with biomarkers and genomic sequencing becoming more commonplace. Immunotherapy is also likely to become a larger part of cancer treatment, as it has shown great promise in recent years.
And finally, we must face the reality that the global population is aging. According to the World Health Organization, by 2030, 1 in 6 people will be over 60. With such a large population of seniors, cancer cases will inevitably increase. We must find better and more efficient ways to diagnose and treat cancer in this demographic.
It has been over 50 years since then-president Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, and we have come a long way in our understanding of cancer. We now know that it is a disease that can be treated and managed, and with the incredible advances in cancer research and public health that we are seeing today, we can be hopeful about the future.
It is important to remember that although the discoveries we’ve made in the past few decades have been pivotal to improved outcomes for cancer patients, they would not have been possible without the hard work of scientists all over the world, or the massive amount of funding that has been dedicated to cancer research.
We are getting closer to a world where cancer is not a vague or unmanageable disease for many, yet we have a long way to go to properly diagnose, treat and prevent it. We need your support! Please consider donating to our cancer-fighting campaigns. Together, we can win the war on cancer.