Cancer May Never Be Eliminated, Nobel Laureate Says
LONDON (Reuters) - Scientists are winning the fight against cancer but it is a long, slow process and the disease that kills about six million people each year may never be eliminated, said Nobel medicine laureate Sir Paul Nurse.
Don't expect any magic bullets. Forget miracle cures.
Cancer is not one but more than 200 different types of disease and far too complicated for any quick fixes.
"Our generation will make significant progress. I really do believe that. I don't believe we will eliminate cancer," the co-director of Cancer Research UK, Europe's largest research organization, told Reuters in an interview.
Nurse should know.
The 53-year-old motorcycle enthusiast who has the look and boyish charm of American comedian Robin Williams has been delving into the secrets of cells for more than two decades. He shared the 2001 Nobel Prize for identifying essential components that control how cells replicate.
Faults in the controls of cell division are what causes cancer. Instead of dying the mutated cell keeps dividing and eventually forms a tumor.
"It is an immensely complex disease. Much more complex than most other (diseases) we have to deal with," said Nurse.
"Because of the complexity there aren't going to be easy quick hits. There may be some but essentially we have to understand fully one of the most complicated diseases known to mankind," he told Reuters.
Nurse, who celebrated his award with a new Kawasaki GPZ 500 motorcycle, is confident that new findings about the genetic and environmental components that cause cancer will lead to better treatments and improved prevention strategies.
But he said the one component that could have the biggest impact on cancer has nothing to do with a miracle drug.
"The single most major hit we can get for short-term cancer rates is to eliminate the use of tobacco. We have to try to do that."
It is an old message but one which Nurse said people are failing to heed. If smokers quit and adolescents don't start fewer people would die from lung and other cancers linked to tobacco. Lung cancer kills about a million people each year.
Avoiding known causes of cancer such as tobacco and over-exposure to the sun, coupled with a better understanding of the genetic components that promote cancer, is the two-prong attack that Nurse said will make a difference.
"If you understand the genetic makeup better we will be able to sort out the environment more easily. That is a new type of approach that we will be able to increasingly use over the next 10-20 years and I think that could lead to significant improvements in prevention," according to Nurse.
Of the estimated 30,000-40,000 genes in humans, scientists suspect perhaps a few hundred are involved in cancer. Each particular cancer, be it breast, colon or skin, is probably defective in a subset of those genes.
"We now understand cancer much better. We have the conceptual tools and we have the scientific tools to dissect it and it is that understanding that will lead to better treatments," said Nurse.
Nurse likens some of the cruder cancer treatments to shaking a broken radio. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but it is better than doing nothing.
"If we really understand how the radio works we should tailor treatment to make it work better. That's the state we're in (with cancer) and that's why I'm optimistic," he explained.
"We will always have cancer with us because of natural mistakes in the natural body so it will never be eliminated but I think we can do much better than we are doing now."