Cancer. The mere mention of the word makes even the healthiest among us feel a momentary shiver of fear — and for good reason. Certain forms of cancer can be extremely difficult to treat, and current therapies don’t work all the time. Clearly, a cure is needed.
One Seattle-based non-profit, The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, or The Hutch, seeks to find this cure. And in recent months, they’ve gotten closer than ever to finding a cure for several forms of cancer.
The Problem with the Word “Cure”
Saying that scientists may have found a cure for cancer raises hackles among many physicians. The primary concern with declaring any new cancer treatment to be a cure remains creating false hope in the minds of patients. Medicine is far from a precise science. What works for one patient may not work very well for another. This can be clearly seen in the way we currently describe positive cancer outcomes. We don’t say a patient is “cured.” We say they are “in remission.”
And as those with recurring cancers can attest, remission does not mean a patient is cured.
Another concern cited for hesitancy in using the word “cure” in conjunction with cancer treatment centers around the fact that such an announcement, made in haste, could discourage wealthy private donors from further funding continued research. This can be a concern with a disease such as cancer because how long a patient stays “cured” is contingent upon them remaining cancer-free not just temporarily, but over the long term. Losing this funding could lead to patient suffering.
How the “Magic” Works
So why does The Hutch’s discovery have them looking to use such a controversial word in conjunction with their pioneering cancer treatment?
Let’s start with a bit of history. The Hutch remains famous for having pioneered bone marrow transplants in leukemia cases. Considered renegade at the time, the scientists at The Hutch theorized that building up the body’s own immune response would lead to remission. Their work then showed that introducing immune cells into the body could combat cancer cells.
Now, the team seeks to take that groundbreaking research one step further by prodding the body’s own immune system into attacking cancerous cells. This not only will eliminate the need to have host immune cells from a donor of the same blood type, but it could also lead to the technique being applicable to a wider range of patients with different types of cancer.
One of the reasons cancer is so hard to cure is that cancer cells have the ability to stop an immune cell from fighting them by turning off the immune response of those cells at a biological level. The new immune therapies, known as Adoptive T-Cell techniques, create synthetic receptors to trigger the body’s own natural immune response despite the efforts of cancer cells to turn them off. This allows the body’s own immune system to fight the cancerous cells.
While the technique has been proven to work in lab mice, significant hurdles still exist before this treatment protocol can be offered to the general public. One issue now is expense. This sort of immunotherapy is not very cost-effective, and as it is not yet an accepted procedure, most insurance plans will not cover it. Researchers at The Hutch, though, are confident that once the technique is refined, it can become cost-effective.
Other immunotherapies have proven helpful in the treatment of many other fatal diseases, including HIV. It is hopeful that, within our lifetimes, we can finally bid adieu to cancer as a cause of death. And each small step is worth celebrating.