Several months after his son Beau died of brain cancer, Vice President Joe Biden called for an American "moon shot" to cure the disease.
On Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama named Biden to command the effort.
This isn't the first time Obama has declared war on cancer. Nor is Obama the first president to survey this ravaging scourge and rally America's formidable resources to eradicate it. President Richard Nixon famously launched a similar effort, also invoking the 1969 American moon landing, in his 1971 State of the Union address.
Flash forward four decades and billions of dollars later. The campaign to diagnose, treat and cure cancer is making steady progress. From 1991 to 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, the cancer death rate declined 23 percent, the American Cancer Society reports. This huge drop is attributable to powerful new drugs and therapies, better screening and detection, and healthier choices by millions of Americans. One welcome cause of the decline: Millions of Americans quit smoking. The best cure is prevention.
But, ominously, some cancers still are on the rise, including certain types of leukemia and cancers of the tongue, tonsil, small intestine, liver, pancreas, kidney and thyroid.
Researchers say they are poised to make dramatic new advances in the coming years. Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, calls this the "golden age" of cancer research and prevention. He reminds us of the stirring progress that researchers have made since the first American astronaut stepped onto the moon.
"Keep in mind we didn't even know that genes cause cancer 50 years ago," he tells us. "Then we realized it was a disease of genetic mutations. Then it took about 20 years to discover the genes causing cancer, and how the immune system works to fight cancer. That knowledge has reached the point of maturity that has given us actionable information to make a decisive assault on cancer."
That includes new drugs that can be targeted precisely to patients with specific genetic abnormalities.
This encouraging progress lacks the gee-whiz drama of a moon-shot cure -- a pill or treatment that eradicates cancer once and for all. That's a glittering prize that may not even be possible against a tenacious and clever foe.
One major challenge: Cancer isn't a single disease, but more than 100 diseases, scientists say. Even more formidable: "Every patient's cancer is different, because mutations are not exactly the same in each person," DePinho says.
Researchers hope to develop a simple blood test or another diagnostic tool that can detect cancers at their earliest stages when they are most curable. They seek new drugs to "wake up" the immune system to fight cancer cells and tumors.
Biden says he'll "seize the moment" to push for a cure. He promises a fight to funnel more resources into the battle, both private and public. And -- perhaps even more important -- he'll "break down silos and bring all the cancer fighters together" to share information and collaborate for a cure. That's a huge order for fiercely territorial and secretive researchers driven by ego and the potential for huge profits.
Biden isn't the first to suggest that scientists cooperate in the search for a cure. In 2014, the National Institutes of Health launched an ambitious five-year plan to pool the talents of 10 large drug companies and seven nonprofit organizations to accelerate the development of drugs to treat four major predators -- Alzheimer's, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
The NIH hoped to accelerate progress by sifting through stacks of data more quickly, cutting the time to deliver effective new medicines and slashing redundant costs. Instead of secrecy, researchers vowed to publish findings and share data to collaborate on which findings were most likely to lead to effective treatments.
All of that will be vital in an accelerated war to conquer cancer.
Think about all the seemingly invincible diseases vanquished by science: smallpox, polio, diphtheria. Think about millions of people alive today because of advances in HIV therapy. That's a testament to medical ingenuity -- and persistence.
Marshal the troops, Joe. Lead the charge. Let's hasten the day that cancer falls.
-- Chicago Tribune