The Conservative View of Progress in Applied Cancer Research

Via FuturePundit, I see that a recent open access paper outlines the results of applied cancer research over the past four decades.

Declining Death Rates Reflect Progress against Cancer

The success of the "war on cancer" initiated in 1971 continues to be debated, with trends in cancer mortality variably presented as evidence of progress or failure. We examined temporal trends in death rates from all-cancer and the 19 most common cancers in the United States from 1970-2006. ... Progress in reducing cancer death rates is evident whether measured against baseline rates in 1970 or in 1990. The downturn in cancer death rates since 1990 result mostly from reductions in tobacco use, increased screening allowing early detection of several cancers, and modest to large improvements in treatment for specific cancers. Continued and increased investment in cancer prevention and control, access to high quality health care, and research could accelerate this progress.

That there is debate over the effectiveness of funding for cancer research is somewhat a function of slow and steady progress rather than sudden leaps in technology both inspiring and obvious in their magnificence - which will always be the case, people being people. On the other hand, that cancer research is so dominated by government funding has no doubt led to great inefficiency and much borderline or useless work that should not have taken place; everything touched by government funding eventually turns into a low-motivation jobs program and sinkhole for graft, no matter how urgent the cause.

The dry conclusion of the paper is a conservative projection of present trends into the future, something which we should instinctively doubt given the nature of the era. Accelerating change is everywhere: any field connected in some way to computing power is rushing forward, ever faster with each passing year. Biotechnology and its application to medicine is no exception, and the next generation of cancer therapies, based on targeted nanoparticles and identification of cancer biochemistry, will be very much more effective than presently widely available medical technologies.

The existence of a technology platform that can be used to efficiently and safely kill very specific cell types reduces cancer to just another information problem in biotechnology: what do the cells you want killed look like? How is their chemistry different from that of other cells? What is the specific molecular marker I am looking for here? These questions are dead center in the fast lane of life science. The therapies based upon this technology will be as far beyond chemotherapy as chemotherapy is beyond no treatment at all.

ResearchBlogging.orgJemal, A., Ward, E., & Thun, M. (2010). Declining Death Rates Reflect Progress against Cancer PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009584

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