America Declares War… Again

“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer… Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”

These were President Obama’s words at the State of the Union address earlier this week.

Joe Biden has good personal reasons to want to declare war on cancer. He lost his son Beau Biden last May after a yearslong struggle with brain cancer.

Cancer is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care how old you are, how wealthy you are or to whom you are related. Beau Biden was just one of the nearly 600,000 cancer casualties in the U.S. last year.

Making sure America remains the leader in medical research is a great idea. However, the concept of winning a war on cancer and comparing it to a moonshot is very flawed. It was just as flawed in 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer.”

Cancer is not like a moonshot — a Kennedy goal that was delivered during Nixon’s presidency. Going to the moon was eminently possible in principle. While there were difficult engineering problems to be solved, no basic scientific breakthroughs were needed. The basics of getting to the moon had been solved by Robert Goddard’s liquid-fueled rocket in 1926 and further refined by Wernher von Braun in the decades following.

The liquid-fueled rocket was the magic bullet we needed to get to the moon. All we had to do was improve it and use it — a tall order, but still doable.

There is no magic bullet for cancer.

I hate to be a naysayer, but it’s true. We’ve been searching for a magic bullet going back at least as far as Paul Ehrlich, father of chemotherapy and winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine all the way back in 1908.

Curing cancer isn’t something we know how to do. It requires more than solving an engineering problem — it needs a scientific breakthrough. It’s possible to see a path through an engineering problem. Engineering, after all, is an application of existing science. But a scientific breakthrough is unpredictable. Discovery happens when it happens.

And the “war on cancer” meme is flawed in another way. Cancer isn’t a single enemy that can be killed with a single bullet. It’s a handle we use to describe hundreds of different diseases caused by cells that have run amok. Every single one of those diseases is unique.

But it gets more complicated for us. Just as every individual is as genetically unique as a snowflake, the same is true of every single case of cancer. Not only are the genes in these malignant cells unique because they derive from the person who gets sick, but the mutations that emerge are also unique. More complicated still, the cell population in a tumor isn’t homogenous. Some cells may be susceptible to a therapy, while others aren’t — all within the same person’s body.

To top things off, the genetic instability of cancer cells makes them adaptable. A drug might work for a while at controlling the disease… until surviving cells develop resistance. Then the disease comes back with a vengeance.

We’ve learned a lot since 1971.

Still, we’ve whittled away at the problem since Nixon first declared war nearly 45 years ago. The National Cancer Institute keeps a database on cancer incidence and death rates. In 1975, for all cancers, the five-year survival rate after diagnosis was under 49%. By 2007, it had risen to 69%.

So I don’t want to be too gloom and doom about the war on cancer. There is indeed a bright side. It isn’t a war we’ve been able to win with a pinpoint nuclear strike. It’s been a long, slow grind from muddy trench to muddy trench. Every new therapy and diagnostic that comes to market moves the needle a little bit on the death rates.

One Glimmer of Hope for a Final Victory Over Cancer

There is one possibility of winning a war, though. The only way I see that things might conceivably change is if we figure out a way to use an army of intelligent, networked nanobots that can seek out and destroy cancer cells on their own. If we could do that, things might change.

Luckily, we already have such an army at hand. It’s the immune system. The past few years, we’ve made enormous strides in using it to go after cancer. Just last summer, Jimmy Carter was told to get his affairs in order. He had skin cancer that metastasized to his liver and brain. The liver was cleaned up surgically. However, his brain tumors weren’t removable. Had this happened in August 2013, Carter would almost certainly not have lived to see Christmas. However, thanks to a recently approved immunotherapy that allowed his biological nanobots to recognize and attack the cancer cells, his cancer is no longer detectable. He’s still alive today.

That’s why I’m excited about technology aimed at helping the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Several promising biotech companies are in the running to make immunotherapy the final frontier in cancer research. In fact, I study a few of these companies closely in my Agora Financial’s FDA Trader portfolio. You can find out more about them by clicking here.

We may not have to wait long to find out the true success of immunotherapy. Several of these companies are gearing up for Phase 3 trials that are expected to wrap up this year.

To a bright future,

Ray Blanco

Ray Blanco

The Daily Reckoning