Defeat cancer is possible: the projected number of cancer deaths worldwide between now and 2030 is increasing. Cancer today is still responsible for 1 in every 8 deaths on the planet.
This situation seems incredible if we think at all the resources invested in prevention, research and cure since the famous Nixon’s declaration of war to cancer.
Where cancers come from? Ancient Egyptians blamed cancers on the gods, but the first to propose a theory has been Hippocrates. He believed the body had four humors or body fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) and their balance (or unbalance) determined the health of people. An excess of black bile in various body sites was thought to cause cancer. Zacutus Lusitani (1575-1642) and Nicholas Tulp (1593-1674), 2 doctors in Holland, concluded at almost the same time that cancer was contagious.We had to wait for the eighteenth century to change substantially this confusing scenario. Stahl and Hoffman, two German researchers, theorized that cancer was composed of fermenting and degenerating lymph. In 1838, German pathologist Johannes Muller demonstrated that cancer is made up of cells and not lymph. Then we enter in the last century with all the studies, tools and technology that we call modern medicine. In 1962, as reported by the cancer.org website, “DNA was found to be the basis of the genetic code that gives orders to all cells. After learning how to translate this code, scientists were able to understand how genes worked and how they could be damaged by mutations (changes or mistakes in genes). These modern techniques of chemistry and biology answered many complex questions about cancer. Scientists already knew that cancer could be caused by chemicals, radiation, and viruses, and that sometimes cancer seemed to run in families. But as the understanding of DNA and genes increased, they learned that it was the damage to DNA by chemicals and radiation, or the introduction of new DNA sequences by viruses that often led to the development of cancer”.
I could not terminate this short historical excursus without the recent position of Paul Davies and his colleagues, at Arizona State University in Tempe, as explained by the Scientific American. “They argue that because cancer appears in many animals and plants, as well as humans, then it must have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago when we shared a common single-celled ancestor. At that time, cells benefited from immortality, or the ability to proliferate unchecked, as cancer does. When complex multicellular organisms developed, however, “immortality was outsourced to the eggs and sperm,” Davies says, and somatic cells (those not involved in reproduction) no longer needed this function. The team’s hypothesis is that when faced with an environmental threat to the health of a cell—radiation, say, or a lifestyle factor—cells can revert to a “preprogrammed safe mode.” In so doing, the cells jettison higher functionality and switch their dormant ability to proliferate back on in a misguided attempt to survive. “Cancer is a fail-safe,” Davies remarks. “Once the subroutine is triggered, it implements its program ruthlessly.” It’s quite a controversial theory, but it’s enough clear to understand how complex is the matter.
So we have spoken about the past and the present, but what future has for us? Which technologies will defeat cancer? We have listed below a few futurist approaches, that operating alone or combined together can invert the trend of the dramatic curves seen in the graph above.
Technologies to defeat cancer
Aspirin, Prevention and Instant Diagnosis
I’m sure you think I’m joking. Defeat cancer with Aspirin. Prevention. A new study by University College London, published in 2015, suggests that on current trends, by 2050, cancer will rarely kill anyone under the age of 80. The report says: “It is realistic to expect by 2050 nearly all cancer related deaths in children and adults aged up to (say) 80 years will have become preventable through life style changes and because of the availability of protective technologies and better pharmaceutical and other therapies.” As simple as it sounds “Prof Cuzick, director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, said not smoking and not putting on too much weight were both effective ways to reduce the chance of cancer – but he said taking a daily 75mg aspirin was the best positive step to lower their risk of the disease.” The idea that the sooner we discover cancer in a human body, the better is obvious today, but will be pushed to further limits through instant diagnosis, especially if available at home. Cheap kits will be available for rapid test. We can imagine a future for the water closet. Once again I’m not joking. The piece of furniture born perfect and never evolved since 1775, will be our domestic computer spotting cancer in our body fluids.
As scientists de-coded and analyzed DNA, they now want to catalogue an individual’s “metabolome”, the complete set of small-molecule chemicals involved in metabolic reactions in the human body. This will happen thanks to supercomputers. Big data analytics will then allow finding the combination of food, genetics, external environment factors and many other items that affect positively individual nutrition and defeat cancer. Genetics influence how a person absorbs and metabolizes the bioactive compounds in foods, the unique community of bacterial flora in each person’s gut plays a key role as well, countless environmental factors (for example smoking) can influence as well. Last but not least, machines will have to understand how foods work together and explore food synergies. Then personalized nutrition will spread and allow people to avoid food that, according to their individual situation, might increase the risk of cancer. This Futurefood2050 post, explains the topic pretty well.
Personalized Targeted Therapy
We know that the cost of sequencing the genomes is rapidly dropping. This activity, which was reserved to very wealthy people, will be soon affordable for every person. Sequencing the genomes of cancer patients will allow making personalized medicine. The idea is to determine the genetic sequence of each patient’s tumor and customize the treatment accordingly. In the case of cancer, the disease has its own genetic makeup, lending each tumor a unique character with unique tendencies and vulnerabilities. The scope is to identify mutating genes and “attack” them with drugs tailored specifically for that genomic sequence. It’s something experimented now with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. Personal genomics is today a relatively niche field; a few years ago, Steve Jobs had his tumor genome sequenced, in the hope it would provide information about more appropriate treatments for him and for other people with the same cancer. We know how the story ended, but if we project this exercise ahead 20/30 years, we can have much more confidence it will help to save people’s life and defeat cancer.
This is not a technology developed exclusively to treat tumors, but can support and complement other technologies to defeat cancer. Primary tumors, cancers that first appear in the body, are recognized by the location, be it the liver, lung, brain or colon. The point is that they aren’t the reason most people die from cancer. Most people die because of cancer cells that break off from primary tumors, and settle in other parts of the body. This process of metastasis is responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths. The Futuresearch blog describes it well. The solution seems to be growing new organs generated by stem cells from our own bodies and schedule a replacement. This would definitely solve the issue of immune rejection and would be better than replacement coming from other people (the organ would be free of any disease or damage due to aging).
The Berg Approach
Berg is a company using artificial intelligence and machine learning to defeat cancer. This should be sufficient to consider it innovative or even disruptive. The point is that Berg is shaking upside down the way research is made. Thanks to data they are reversing the scientific method. The co-founder Niven R Narain says “Instead of a preconceived hypothesis that leads us to do experiments and generate a particular type of data, we allowed the biological data from the patients to lead us to the hypotheses.” According to him, development and production can cost pharmaceutical companies up to $2.6 billion and take 12 to 14 years to complete. “Only one per cent of the cancer drugs that make it to clinical trials prove to be effective.” This happens because scientists make observations and assumptions, design a theory and then spend time and money to verify if the hypotheses are correct. Vice versa, biological data generated by the analysis of healthy and cancerous tissues, processed by artificial intelligence algorithms, can lead to appropriate cures. Another exceptional point is that Narain didn’t want to narrow down his study to just one cancer. This technology is powerful enough to explore different types of cancer at the same time. If you want to read a great post on Berg, this Wired article explains the story really well.
Nanobots are tiny robots made of DNA programmed to search and destroy cancer cells in our body. The device is only 35 nanometers in width, which, to give you a perspective, is around 200 times smaller than a red blood cell. They’ve been tested in cell cultures, animal studies and in 2015 Dr. Bachelet started the trials on humans. As reported in this Daniel Korn’s excellent post “searching for a safer cancer drug is basically like searching for a gun that kills only bad people.” This is because nanobots will leave healthy cells untouched. Nanobots are made of DNA, which is a naturally biocompatible and biodegradable material, and the devices are designed to not incite an immune response. When the nanobot recognize a cancer cell based on its surface proteins, it delivers a tiny but deadly cargo of drugs or nanoparticles. This is important because it means that no new drugs have to be developed, it’s just about using the existing ones in a targeted way. And this time “target” means cellular level. According to the London Jewish Chronicle, a dozen types of cancer can currently be recognized by the nanobots including leukemias and solid tumors.