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Why haven't we cured cancer?

We’re often asked the question - “why haven’t we cured cancer yet?”

Billions of pounds have been raised, invested and spent on cancer research over many decades, but we still haven’t cured cancer. Why is that? Our cancer research experts have outlined some of the key things you need to know. (And no, it’s not because Big Pharma is hiding the cure).

There will never be one single cure.

To understand why we haven’t cured cancer yet, the most important thing to know is that cancer is not one disease. Instead, it’s an umbrella term for more than 200 distinct diseases – that’s why we fund research into any type of cancer.

Each broad cancer type has many sub-types, and they all look and behave differently because they are different on a genetic and molecular level. This is because cancer arises from our own cells, so each cancer can be as different and diverse as people are.

Myriads of mutations exist.

Underlying the more than 200 different cancers are a myriad of different genetic mutations. Every cancer is caused by a different set of mutations and as the tumour grows, more and more mutations accumulate. This means that every tumour has an individual set of mutations, so a drug that works for one cancer patient, might have absolutely no effect on another.

That’s why we fund researchers like Jesus Gil, whose research project aims to understand how specific genetic mutations can lead to cells becoming cancerous.

Cancer cells within a single tumour are not identical.

Not every cancer cell in a tumour will have the same genetic mutations as a neighbouring cancer cell. That means that treatments can often kill one type of cell in a tumour, while others survive the treatment, allowing the tumour to grow again.

Treatments can eventually stop working.

The genetic mutations that cancer cells acquire over time mean that the cells change the way they behave. This can be an incredibly difficult problem during treatment because the mutations can lead to cancer cells developing resistance to a treatment over time, making it ineffective.

If that happens, the patient will then have to be put on to a different treatment – but again, the cancer could develop resistance to the new drug. This is why we fund researchers like Maite Huarte, who is trying to figure out how to overcome this resistance.

Cancer cells are really good at staying alive.

Normal cells have certain mechanisms in place that stop them from growing or dividing too much. Cancer cells have lost these control mechanisms and can develop an arsenal of tricks to avoid being killed.

That’s why we fund researchers like Vincenzo Giambra, who aims to understand how cancer cells become such survival experts.

Cancer research offers hope that one day we will overcome all of these problems and stop the suffering caused by cancer.

Cancer is complex (take a look at our article on what causes cancer to find out more) and the more we know about it, the more it becomes clear that there won’t ever be a ‘magic bullet’. But we have already made incredible progress - thanks to research, survival rates for cancer have doubled in the last four decades.

Some cancers, such as leukaemia and testicular cancer, have made particularly impressive jumps. In the 1970s only about 5% of people survived their leukaemia diagnosis for ten years or longer, now almost 50% do. The ten-year survival rate for testicular cancer is now at 91% - an amazing improvement.

Thanks to you we have been able to support innovative research from the beginning. But there is still a long way to go. There are still cancers that have seen hardly any improvement in survival rates over the years, including lung, pancreatic and oesophageal cancer. That’s why we need your help to continue starting new cures for cancer.