Losing the war on cancer?

A hundred of the world’s leading cancer specialists descended on Lugano in Switzerland in November 2012 to formulate a 10-point action plan to finish off what President Richard Nixon started on 23 December 1971, when he signed the US National Cancer Act, frequently referred to as the war on cancer.

Forty years later only pharmaceutrical company press releases refer to a cure for cancer or life saving drugs.

"Curing cancer is certainly more complicated than landing on the Moon," said Peter Krammer of the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, one of the experts who attended the World Oncology Forum. "We don’t talk about the war on cancer because it’s almost cliched. But perhaps it’s time to revive it and look at it again," said Douglas Hanahan, director of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Lausanne. We are winning some battles in the war, but most of the time we are losing them, essentially because cancer is a disease of extraordinary complexity, he told the meeting.

After a false dawn and shattered hopes with drugs that targeted the growth of blood supplies to cancers not much has improved with the new generation of designer drugs designed to work against certain unique factors in cancers. One such drug, BRAF inhibitors, produced near-miraculous results in initial trials, with tumours visibly receding within weeks of treatment. However, six months later, the tumours returned with a vengeance this time with resistant cancer cells, added Dr Hanahan.

The audience heard that one route forward might be several drugs in combination but prices were prohibitive. With some drugs at over $130,000 a no health service will be able to afford to put a patient on two or three such drugs at the same time.

But the second area we are losing is prevention and, if recent trends continue, according to the WHO the global incidence of cancer will increase to 22 million new cases each year by 2030 a 75 per cent increase compared with 2008.

Cancer is still a leading cause of disease worldwide, accounting for around 13 per cent of all deaths in 2008. And as developing countries become better off, so rich mans disease will become more prevalent there.

October - December Cancer Watch 2012
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