Basic cancer research: aren’t we finished yet?
On World Cancer Day our CEO, Dr Helen Rippon, wrote the following piece for a cancer feature by the Independent.
This year marks 45 years since US president Richard Nixon launched his famed ‘War on Cancer.’ To a backdrop of popping flashbulbs, Nixon signed a new act dedicating millions of dollars to cancer research. Back then basic research in the laboratory was seen as the key to it all. Just as a mechanic cannot fix a car without knowing how an engine works, neither can cancer be solved without understanding what controls the biology and behaviour of cells. In 1971 a man had just landed on the moon; understanding something as simple as a cancer cell seemed well within reach.
Yet nearly half a century later, the War on Cancer drags on. Just this month the incumbent US president announced “a new national effort to get it done”. You’d be forgiven for asking if cancer research is really worth it.
Cancer may not yet be as “conquered” as Nixon hoped, but over the last four decades research has made huge strides. Cancer survival in the Western world is improving; a person diagnosed with cancer in the UK today is much less likely to die of it than they would have been in the 1970s. That has a lot to do with numerous medical and technological advances kick-started years ago by basic research.
For example thanks to research, doctors now have a suite of targeted therapies able to zero in on cancer while sparing healthy cells - quite unlike the sledgehammer chemotherapies of old. The poster child for targeted cancer drugs, imatinib, has turned chronic myeloid leukaemia from a fatal disease into a manageable condition. New treatments that trigger the immune system to awaken the body’s own defence mechanisms against cancer are showing huge promise in the clinic. And because researchers now know more about how, when, and why cancer develops, doctors are better able to choose the right treatments for the right patient.
Scientists have used basic research to get to the very roots of cancer. Improvements in techniques to identify, track, and manipulate cancer cell molecules are helping researchers dissect the detail of how cancer results from a gradual (or sometimes not so gradual) accumulation of catastrophic cellular faults; a stepwise cascade of events sending healthy cells down a dangerous path.
To this day basic research continues to reveal completely new insights into the machinations of cancer. Like the emerging field of cancer dormancy, which seeks to understand how cancer cells can sometimes enter a long-term stealth mode that enables them to hide out and resist treatment. And the recent discovery that cancer cells may be able to spread by somehow ‘priming’ distant sites in the body to receive them. Or how cancer cells subvert the healthy cells around them, hijacking their neighbours to make them unwilling accomplices in protecting and feeding the tumour. All of this provides ammunition to scientists developing new treatments.
Basic cancer research provides the foundation that supports real medical advances. To ask why we need basic cancer research is to question the very point of new knowledge. Basic research scientists are out there searching for the next seeds of future cancer medicines. It is our duty to support them.