There’s a news story that we hear every few months. It resonates across the world, speaking to some of our greatest fears, and deepest desires. It tells us that we can survive a dread disease, and perhaps beat back the ever-present march toward mortality that we all face.
The story changes slightly, but it always goes something like this:
“Scientists have discovered the key to a CURE for CANCER”
This week’s version of the story is no different. According to news sources from around the world, Israeli scientists have discovered a “Complete cure for cancer”, sparking headlines like “We’ll have a cure for cancer within a year, scientists claim” from the New York Post, and the very similar “Israeli scientists: we’ll have a cure for cancer within a year” from Futurism.com.
This all sounds very exciting. There are few people in this world who have not lost someone to cancer, which is unsurprising when you realize that the lifetime risk of having at least one cancer is about 40%. To put it another way, 2 in 5 of the people reading this article will have, have had, or are currently suffering from, cancer.
A cure would be literally world-changing.
Sadly, despite our love for them, these stories are almost always bogus. They are usually based on speculative, pre-clinical work, and ignore a simple fundamental truth:
There will never be a “cure” for cancer.
The latest media kerfuffle comes from an Israeli company called AEBi, which is short for Accelerated Evolution Biotechnology Ltd. It’s a wonderful name for a company, because it sounds delightfully flashy but could mean literally anything.
AEBi was founded in 2000, and has been investigating their proprietary method of drug delivery/cancer treatment for most of that time. Without delving too deeply into the technicalities of their work, it mostly revolves around developing molecules that target specific receptors that occur in most cells.
So far, so good. There are dozens of potentially viable avenues of cancer treatment, most of which are being researched by teams across the globe in the hope of producing a single effective drug.
What’s caused a hubbub recently is that AEBi has claimed that they expect to be able to cure all cancers within a year. Given that this is the holy grail of medical research, they’ve received huge international attention and acclaim.
Unfortunately, it looks like a cure for cancer is still an impossible dream.
The problem with these stories is that they are almost always based on very preliminary research that seems extremely promising, but rarely pans out. Most cancer treatments that are designed to work on many or even most cancers end up being effective for just a few.
This is no surprise, because “cancer” isn’t actually a disease. What we like to call cancer is really a collection of vastly different diseases, with different causes, treatments, and outcomes, that we lump together for convenience because they all have a a few similarities. Saying that you can “cure cancer” is a nonsense statement — it’s like claiming to be able to cure all bacterial infections, or all chronic illness, with a single treatment.
So most of these claims are based on tests done to cells in a jar, or rats in a cage, because when it comes to real-life people it turns out that very few cancer cures actually work. Only a small fraction of these pre-clinical studies — studies done as a proof of concept, demonstrating that the treatment works in theory before trials in people begin — make it to human testing, and even then usually treat just one or two types of cancer*.
The latest news about AEBi is no different. When you look for the evidence behind their enormous claims, you find almost nothing backing them up at all. They have no human studies, and in fact appear to have not yet published a single paper on their supposedly groundbreaking research. The only thing that is currently supporting the claim of curing cancer within a year is a series of slides on their website referring to work done in cells in petri dishes and rodents in a lab.
This is interesting research, but remember: less than 5% of cancer treatments that are tested in pre-clinical research make it to patients. This is unsurprising, because developing cancer treatments is astonishingly hard. There are hundreds of hoops to jump through between successfully killing cancer cells in a petri dish and curing cancer in actual living human beings.
Even the scientists at AEBi admit that they are unlikely to have a treatment on the market for years, despite their grandiose claims.
It seems like just another round of smoke and mirrors.
Cancer Is Hard
The sad fact is that we will probably never have a cure for cancer. With the advent of new technologies, we may one day be able to survive many or even most cancers, but it’s unlikely that they will be cured.
Realistically, anyone who claims to be able to cure cancer is either ignorant of what cancer actually is, vastly overstating their claim, or is simply lying.
The vast majority of “cancer cure” stories are based on very preliminary research, not something that’s being trialed on actual people. Most of these treatments don’t pan out, and the few that do are usually only useful for a small number of diseases at best.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t important: melanoma, for example, has gone from a ten-year survival rate of 30% to more than 90% due to the development of treatments like these. An effective treatment for a single cancer can be enormously useful, but it’s still nowhere near a cure.
Don’t believe the hype.
Cancer is often treatable, but will probably never be cured.
*Note: this does ~not~ mean that they are unprofitable. Treating a single type of cancer effectively can be INCREDIBLY lucrative