When Will We Cure Cancer?

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The former NCI director, Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach established an ambitious goal of eliminating the suffering and death due to cancer by 2015.  Dr. Varmus will this happen?

Harold Varmus:  You’re putting me in a different position.  Politically, I don’t want to bash a previous director, but I will because this was a claim that just has no reality.  The argument was we’re going to banish death and suffering from cancer, not that we were going to abolish cancer, but that is just not going to happen in such a short timescale, and it creates first of all, a false aspiration, one that we clearly cannot succeed in achieving and secondly, it provides too much optimism in a setting that is—as you’ve heard around this table—a very complicated set of diseases and we are not going to conquer all those diseases and prevent death from them in such a short timescale. 

Lewis Cantley:  Yeah, I completely agree and I would add that I'm optimistic because I think with these target approaches and as we break cancer into more and more sub fractions we figure out how to cure the sub fractions. Every year we’re going to see another few percent get if not cured, at least have treatments that allow people to live without extensive chemotherapy approaches and so if you do that, if you project it and say we’re only going to cure 2% this year, well if we started curing 2% in 1970 today we’d be almost finished because in 50 years at 2% we could get them all.  

Siddhartha Mukherjee: I'm reminded of the advertisement that came out in 1969 which said, “Mr. Nixon, you can cure cancer”, in the New York Times and the Washington Post and of course the advertisement says you can cure cancer as if it was one disease and of course the word cure. And in fact, the goal was set at that point of time by 1981, and 1981 has long passed as you know. 

 Harold Varmus:  Yeah, I think the discussion though needs to be enlarged slightly so we remind ourselves that while it’s attractive to think about curing an advanced cancer with drugs that there are many other things we can do to reduce the burden of cancer.  One of course is to prevent it and we’ve had some brief discussions about that, but we can make great- in fact, most of the reduction in mortality from cancer in this country is due to smoking cessation.  Secondly, I would point out that drugs are only one of many things we do to treat cancer and perhaps the most effective thing we can do is remove a cancer, so surgery is a very important tool here, surgical methods, not much talked about, have improved.  When we detect cancer early before it has spread we can cure it more frequently, so early detection, prevention and conventional therapy used early on are very important steps.

The other thing I would go back to is Dr. Von Eschenbach’s term suffering.  We tend to forget that while cancer is still a terrible disease we have reduced suffering from cancer already dramatically, much better pain control, control of nausea and vomiting.  Chemotherapy has gotten more tolerable.  We can restore bone marrow function fairly quickly with really very superb science using hormones to stimulate the way the marrow functions after chemotherapy.  These are major changes. 

Deborah Schrag: And the fact that it’s no longer something that people need to keep a secret, the fact that there are many public figures who have cancer who are open about their cancer diagnoses and the numerous strategies people use to cope. 

Doug Schwartzentruber:  I think our strategy somewhat has changed.  Yes, we continue to search for a cure, but the other C word, control and so many of our trials right now that are publishing results talk about cancer control as opposed to the term cure and getting that disease to stabilize and not progress and if we can do that it becomes an elegist to some of our other chronic diseases.

Siddhartha Mukherjee: Dr. Schrag, can lifestyle choices alone prevent cancer?

Dr. Deborah Schrag: Lifestyle choices alone can’t prevent all cancers, but they can enormously decrease the incidence, particularly of some cancers, so lung cancer would be the best example.  Some of the things Harold was talking about, getting vaccinated for hepatitis B, getting vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, getting 11 year-old girls- we could probably eradicate or come close to eradicating cervical cancer. The challenge is here we’ve got a cancer that is caused by a virus and we know that just as our genes are changing and evolving so are the genes of viruses, so right now we have a vaccine that seems to work against most strains, but is it possible that we’ll have new viral strains that this vaccine will no longer work?  Absolutely, that's possible, so this is going to be an ongoing process. 

 

The previous director of the National Cancer Institute wanted to banish suffering and death from cancer by 2015. Current director Harold Varmus says this claim was not based on reality, but huge strides in prevention, detection, and treatment are being made.

What we want from horror is a cardiac jump-start, study suggests

A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.

Credit: Nathan Wright/Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers from a Danish Recreational Fear Lab investigate fear's Goldilocks zone.
  • People love a good fright that stops short of being genuinely worrisome.
  • The study tracks the heart rates of haunted-house visitors.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Fireball meteorite offers clues to origins of life

    A meteorite that smashed into a frozen lake in Michigan may explain the origins of life on Earth, finds study.

    Credit: T. Masterson and the American Meteor Society | Robert Ward
    Surprising Science
    • A new paper reveals a meteorite that crashed in Michigan in 2018 contained organic matter.
    • The findings support the panspermia theory and could explain the origins of life on Earth.
    • The organic compounds on the meteorite were well-preserved.
    Keep reading Show less

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

    Should facial recognition software be banned on college campuses?

    A heated debate is occurring at the University of Miami.

    Credit: asiandelight / Adobe Stock
    Technology & Innovation
    • Students say they were identified with facial recognition technology after a protest at the University of Miami; campus police claim this isn't true.
    • Over 60 universities nationwide have banned facial recognition; a few colleges, such as USC, regularly use it.
    • Civil rights groups in Miami have called for the University of Miami to have talks on this topic.

    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast