When Will We Cure Cancer?
In December, Big Think hosted a panel discussion to discuss this question and highlight cutting-edge cancer research as part of our Breakthroughs series, made possible by Pfizer. This conversation featured back-and-forth exchanges between top luminaries in the field, including:
Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Varmus won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1989 for discovering the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes.
Dr. Doug Schwartzentruber, Surgical Oncologist at the Goshen Center for Cancer Care. Time magazine ranked Dr. Schwartzentruber as one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2010.
Dr. Deborah Schrag, Medical Oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Dr. Schrag is also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Lewis Cantley, Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. His discovery and study of the enzyme PI-3-kinase have proved highly influential for cancer research.
This panel was moderated by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University. Dr. Mukherjee is the author of "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," which was nominated as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.
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.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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