Tags: Health Topics | Cancer | cancer | Moonshot 2020 | Obama | Biden | Toba

Obama's Cancer Moonshot — Don't Hold Your Breath for a Cure

Image: Obama's Cancer Moonshot — Don't Hold Your Breath for a Cure
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Tuesday, 08 Mar 2016 11:22 AM Current | Bio | Archive

President Obama announced in his final State of the Union address a national effort  — a “moonshot” — to cure cancer “once and for all,” placing Vice President Joe Biden in charge of the initiative’s “Mission Control.” Biden lost his son, Beau Biden, to brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46. Indeed, Obama himself failed to mention that his own mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 52.

A few hours prior to Obama’s speech, a group of biotech companies, doctors and pharmaceutical companies announced a coalition called the Cancer MoonShot 2020.

Obama’s “Let’s make it happen” enthusiasm harks back to former President Richard Nixon’s own January 1971 State of the Union Address, where he announced the National Cancer Act (P.L. 92-218), called at the time “Nixon’s War on Cancer,” even though the term “war” was not used in the verbiage of the legislation. (Ironically, Nixon would lose a brother, Francis Donald Nixon, to cancer in 1987.)

On December 23, 1971, Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law, declaring, "I hope in the years ahead we will look back on this action today as the most significant action taken during my Administration."

Despite enormous medical research efforts brought to bear on the cancer problem, science writer Gina Kolata noted in the April 24, 2009 edition of The New York Times that although progress has been made in dealing with childhood leukemia and some specialized cancers, the death rate for cancer in the US adjusted for population size and age declined only five percent from 1950 to 2005.

Some declines occurred simply because people aren’t smoking as much as they used to, so there are fewer opportunities for carcinogens to cause genetic mutations in dividing cells that set off cancer growth. (Cancer risk is 18 times higher in smokers than non-smokers.)

Even so, a 2011 report by the CDC and the NCI indicated that the number of cancer survivors in 2007 (11.7 million) increased by 19% from 2001 (9.8 million survivors). A 2013 report by the National Cancer Institute indicated a continued decline in cancer rates among across most major racial groups, but also noted an increase from 2000 to 2009 in cancers of the liver, pancreas and uterus.

Interestingly, some animals don’t get cancer very often, such as elephants (one in 20 elephants die of cancer, as opposed to one in five humans), whales (some of which can live to be 200 years old) and naked mole rats, not one of which has ever been observed to get cancer in captivity.

So what’s going on here? Some of these animals have cancer-fighting genes, or mutations that help prevent DNA from being damaged, or, in the case of mole rats, a special molecule that prevents tumor formation.

Humans appear particularly prone to spontaneous negative mutations. A paper published in the January 2, 2015 issue of the journal Science (“Variation In Cancer Risk Among Tissues Can Be Explained By The Number Of Stem Cell Divisions”) by Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstei, claims that “only a third of the variation in cancer risk among tissues is attributable to environmental factors or inherited predispositions. The majority is due to ‘bad luck,’” or random mutations that occur during normal DNA replication.

Why should this be so? One interesting theory involves the past history of the human race. Around 70,000 B.C, the volcano Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra erupted spectacularly, ejecting 650 cubic miles of material into the atmosphere. It is the largest single eruption known to scientists in the geologic record.

The Toba eruption caused an ecological catastrophe, reducing sunshine for years, burying a large segment of East Africa in volcanic ash, dropping the temperature to the point where the grassy savannah of Africa,the habitat of early homo sapiens, almost disappeared.

Not so coincidentally, a Stanford University genetic study reveals that the population of the human race may have shrunk as low as 2,000 during this time before it recovered.

In such a rapidly changing, lethal environment, only a breeding population of humans with a high mutation rate could adapt quickly to the situation, as some offspring would have just the right mutations to survive in whatever environment presented itself, and some of these would meet and breed among others with the same mutations, thus spawning a small, continuing population of survivors.

Modern humans probably still possess the higher mutation rate handed down from the survivors of the Toba extinction event. Higher mutation rates can lead to cancer and would explain the “bad luck” phenomenon reported by Tomasett and Vogelstei.

All of this means that Obama’s “cancer moonshot” researchers have their work cut out for them. They may be up against having to re-engineer the basic mechanism of human cell division itself.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was founding editor of Jeff Pulver’s Voice on the Net (VON) magazine from 2003 to 2006, and the chief technical editor of Harry Newton’s Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.

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President Obama's "cancer moonshot" researchers have their work cut out for them.
cancer, Moonshot 2020, Obama, Biden, Toba
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2016-22-08
Tuesday, 08 Mar 2016 11:22 AM
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