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Are We Any Closer to Curing Cancer?

We live in a world of exciting advances. We’ve put men on the Moon, developed new energy sources, and treated countless diseases. But a cure for cancer can still seem beyond our grasp. Despite billions of dollars in research per year, this disease continues to impact far too many people.

At times, it may feel like a dire situation. But significant advances are being made in the fight against cancer, according to Jonathan Chernoff, MD, PhD, chief scientific officer, at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

“You can see it in American Cancer Society data—the death rate is going down,” he said. “That said, there’s lots and lots of headway that needs to be made, and this plague is far from over.”

The nature of cancer

“Curing cancer” sounds like something to check off a list. But that’s oversimplifying a multifaceted issue.

“Why haven’t we cured cancer? It’s not that we’re not smart enough,” Chernoff said. “It’s a very complex problem, more so than we thought 50 years ago. It turns out cancer is a general term. There are lots of different kinds of cancer in different tissues that act in different ways. They’re not all caused by the same mutations and they’re not all going to respond to the same type of treatment.”

There will likely not be one cure for cancer because more than 200 individual diseases fall under the “cancer” umbrella, according to the American Association for Cancer Research. All of these maladies are characterized by the uncontrolled production of cells. Malignant cells reproduce and form tumors or, in the case of blood cancers, crowd out normal cells in bone marrow and the bloodstream.

People are diverse, and cancers are too. Two types of cancer might occur in the same organ, but they might not behave or react to treatment in the same way. And genetic makeup can further complicate detection, diagnosis, and treatment.

Exciting advances in cancer care

Despite all of the challenges that cancer presents, researchers are making progress in the prevention, detection, treatment, and survivorship of the disease.

“Maybe the largest successes have been in prevention,” Chernoff said. “If you look at smoking cessation alone, the reduction in rates of smoking has definitely affected the amount of lung cancer people get. Maybe more lives have been saved by public education and subsequent changes in behaviors than what people like me do in the lab.”

Prevention is always important, of course. But so is finding newer and better treatments. And how cancer is treated has changed dramatically. Chemotherapy and radiation aren’t the only options anymore. Immunotherapy, for example, has marked a huge breakthrough in cancer care.

“You can’t have a conversation about cancer treatment without talking about immunotherapy,” Chernoff said. “That’s been a great advance in the last 20 years. The immune system plays a role in combating cancer—there are ways to make the immune system more active in fighting cancer than it would be on its own.”

Researchers are testing new therapies focused on detection too. Blood tests are being developed to find cancer before symptoms start.

“The idea is that, with a simple blood test, you might be able to detect something in the blood to indicate cancer somewhere in the body,” Chernoff said. “It’s early days for these tests, but someday, especially for someone at risk—say they have a family member with cancer or another high-risk factor—when they go in for their physical, in addition to regular tests looking at cholesterol and the like, their doctors might add an analysis of circulating tumor DNA to that round of tests.”

This sort of testing is experimental right now. Costs and false positives concern researchers. But as Chernoff said, “It’s a very exciting glimpse of the future.”

At the forefront of cancer research

Cancer is the sole focus of our work at Fox Chase, and our scientists study every aspect.

“At Fox Chase, we’re involved in the whole cancer problem from prevention and detection to treatment and survivorship,” Chernoff said. “There are areas of excellence in all those domains.”

One area with a lot of momentum is the cancer epigenetics program.

“Epigenetics are even subtler than regular genetics,” Chernoff explained. “We’re looking at the second level of genetic code—not changes in sequence, but things that regulate the organization and expression of DNA. In cancer, the epigenetic profile is altered. There are now drugs that can regulate the epigenetic profile. It’s definitely a hot field.”

New fields and major discoveries in cancer tend to grab a lot of attention. But incremental advances happen all the time. They make things a little better. Add several incremental advances together, and you’ve got a big shift in cancer care.

“We’re always moving up the hill with cancer,” Chernoff said. “If you make enough progress, you make a difference. Generally, it leads to new insights in how to treat cancer.”

Learn more about our scientists’ research at Fox Chase.