Every few years someone steps in it by claiming we are close to a cancer cure – as if all cancers are alike and we’ll soon have all the knowledge we need to cure the myriad forms of cancer.
The latest public figure to make that claim is Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president Dr. Gary Gilliland. He recently told attendees at a life science industry conference in Seattle, Washington, that cancer is “running scared” and predicted a cure would come in the next decade.
“It is actually plausible that in 10 years we will have cures and therapies for most, if not all, human cancers,” Gilliland told the audience of pharmaceutical executives and investors during his keynote talk.
The work driving this advancement, according to Gilliland, comes from – not surprisingly – Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and one of its spin-offs, Juno Therapeutics, which is heavily invested in immunotherapies. As reported by a GeekWire correspondent in attendance, Gilliland gushed about his institution’s progress,
“I have never seen anything like this in my life. You would not believe the types of responses that you see. People who have … widespread disease that has been refractory for every treatment that we have — in some cases on death’s door — and you give this cell-based therapy that was developed by Stan Riddell and Phil Greenberg at the Hutch and these tumors just melt away. People go into continuous, complete remission. You don’t need to keep giving the drug. You give it once. One infusion. And that’s it.”
CNBC dutifully reported that “A cure for cancer is on its way” and Seattle’s King5 TV station provided further insight when it reported that “The acceleration and optimism is being fueled by this week’s announcement of $1 billion investment (by Celgene) to Juno Therapeutics, a Fred Hutchinson spinoff company that is developing these new therapies.”
You gotta wonder if the potential cure is driving the investment or if the investment is driving the hype.
These types of inflated “cancer cure” claims don’t sit well with many in the medical community. It encourages the flow of research dollars into potentially profitable realms at the expense of more deliberate research and leaves the public with false hopes, says Steven Miles, MD, professor of Medicine and Bioethics at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics.
“This kind of reckless hype has long been repeated and long been discredited. Cancer is not one disease. It is a vast archipelago of different diseases. In this respect, it is like infectious disease. One might find a cure for a particular infectious disease but the proposal that we are on the cusp curing all infectious diseases for all time is untenable.”
Miles added that it is reasonable to claim that we will make progress curing some cancers and putting some cancers into long-term remission. But he said Gilliland’s unqualified predictions were beyond the pale.
“The statement, ‘It is actually plausible that in 10 years we will have cures and therapies for most, if not all, human cancers,’ is the cry that exploits fear, generates marketing stampedes that run roughshod over deliberate research and somehow manages to draw money into those who claim to not be in it for the money.”
David Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan, and managing editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog, called the Hutchinson Center’s claim unrealistic. He recalled a similar claim from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) made in 2003 that illustrates how risky it is to make lofty claims about cancer cures.
“Reluctantly and with all due respect, I have to say that the claim that we will have cures for every cancer within ten years is so wildly optimistic as to be out of touch with reality,” Gorski says. “The typical time from basic science idea and observation to clinical trials validating a treatment in humans based on the treatment is 15 years. I believe we are making steady progress against cancer, but such progress is difficult and incremental. We’ve heard these sorts of predictions before, most recently from NCI director Andrew C. von Eschenbach, who in 2003 committed the NCI to “eliminating the suffering and death caused by cancer by 2015.” I can’t help but note that it is 2015, and suffering and death from cancer haven’t been eliminated.”
Gary Schwitzer has covered this type of hype on HealthNewsReview.org previously, such as when CNN’s Sanjay Gupta reported in 2012 that a “breakthrough” in reducing cancer cases and deaths would come within five years. The “breakthrough” was based on an MD Anderson news release.
Similar to the Fred Hutch example, the MD Anderson hoopla went hand-in-hand with a big announcement about a major investment in that center’s “Moon Shots Program.” The cancer center said it intended to invest $3 billion in the Moon Shots Program over the first 10 years with funding from “institutional earnings, philanthropy, competitive research grants and commercialization of new discoveries.” At the time, MD Anderson predicted cures “would come sooner rather than later” for lung cancer, melanoma, triple negative breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, acute myeloid leukemia/myelodysplastic syndrome and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Clearly, we need optimism in the people leading institutions looking for new cancer treatments. But when does an energizing optimism cross the line into foolhardiness and deception?
Dr. Gilliland’s comments, made at a conference packed with investors and on a financial news network, seem to be targeted primarily at Wall Street. And Wall Street’s opinion must be of considerable interest to the management at Fred Hutch, which holds a stake in Juno reportedly valued at $153.6 million when the company went public last December. According to the Seattle Times, Fred Hutch stands to receive an additional $375 million in so-called “success payments” pegged to Juno’s market capitalization. That capitalization is determined by how richly investors value Juno’s stock, which in turn may be influenced by talk of imminent cancer cures.
But while Gilliland may be speaking to Wall Street, his comments will doubtlessly also draw the attention of patients and families desperate for new treatments — either for cancers they have now or are at risk of developing in the near future.
While progress has occurred and will continue, as experts said, incrementally, we’re still many years away from curing most of the cancers that these people and their loved ones will face.
The Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s claim is a “great aspiration – but, unfortunately no reason to think its more than a dream right now,” says Steven Woloshin, MD, professor of Medicine and of Community & Family Medicine at Dartmouth, and co-director of the Medicine in the Media Program. “And of course many people have had this dream before – see Dr. Von Eschenbach, 2005 NIH budget hearings:”
He adds: “The only thing I can say is from his mouth to g_d’s ears.”
Kathlyn Stone is an associate editor for HealthNewsReview.org.