Why Haven't We Found A Cure For Cancer Yet?

Skin cancer, such as this one here, has a high survival rate. Annie Cavanagh

One in two people will get cancer at some point in their lives. As humbling a fact as that is, it raises the obvious question of what is being done to help prevent it. With all the time and money spent on the disease, why is there not a cure for cancer yet?

One of the main issues here is most people’s understanding of what cancer actually is. The word does not refer to a single disease, but is an umbrella term used to talk about hundreds of diseases. For this reason, talk of finding a cure “for cancer” is pretty vague and only useful when discussing the diseases in general terms.

Not only that, but different cancers have different pathologies and subsequently different symptoms. Even within cancer “families”, there can be many different variants of the disease, with differing cell lines giving rise to the diseases seen. This means that it is effectively impossible to study or cure “cancer” as a whole, and thus researchers divide and sub-divide them to focus in on individual variants.

Highly invasive human pediatric brain tumor. Valeria Molinari, Louise Howell, Maria Vinci, Katy Taylor, and Chris Jones/Institute of Cancer Research

This doesn’t mean that we haven’t found any cures for some cancers though. For example, we’re pretty good at treating testicular cancer, which currently has a survival rate of around 98 percent after a decade, while malignant melanoma is catching up with an 89 percent survival rate after 10 years.   

Treating cancer is difficult mainly because of what it actually is. In effect, the disease is derived from our body's own cells, when a mutation in our DNA causes the growth of the cells to go out of whack. There are plenty of natural systems in place to prevent this from happening, and the mutation that manages to escape these systems is incredibly rare. But by a simple game of numbers, with our cells copying and dividing billions and billions of times, chances are one will slip through.

Because it is derived from our own cells, it's difficult not only for the immune system to pick them out but for doctors to target the cancerous cells without damaging healthy ones in the process. One of the main areas of research when it comes to treating individual cancers is to try and identify certain markers that are only present on cancer cells. The researchers then try to either develop a drug to attack them or flag them up so that a person’s own immune cells can deal with them on their own.

But unfortunately, things are not even as simple as that. Different people respond to the same treatments differently. What works for one person to treat a specific variety of cancer will not necessarily work for another who has the same type of disease.

This is why people diagnosed with the disease are trialed with different regimes or combinations of treatments to see what is most effective for them. This touches on another aspect of the fight against cancer, in which some teams are working on genetically profiling patients' individual cancers to create a personalized treatment.

So, while we may never have a single cure for cancer, we’re certainly homing in on treating them. Some are easier to tackle than others and thus make bigger strides, but with more time and more research, we’re certainly getting there.   

Prostate cancer cells treated with nano-sized drug carriers. Khuloud T. Al-Jamal & Izzat Suffian
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