The Quest for a Cure
By Larry M. Edwards
(page 1 of 6)Galen Hermesch has been living one day at a time since being diagnosed eight years ago with Stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—cancer of the lymphatic system. But through a medical miracle, the 56-year-old has been in remission for a year and a half, more than twice as long as any previous remission.
Before enrolling in a therapeutic vaccine study at the University of California at San Diego, Hermesch had gone through numerous types of treatments, relapsing three times. Now, oncologists at the Rebecca & John Moores UCSD Cancer Center are hoping this breakthrough, a technique for creating a vaccine that harnesses a patient’s own immune system to eradicate cancer cells.
In the centuries-old battle against a terrifying disease, this is but one of many recent developments that have scientists and oncologists—medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of cancer—believing that the war on cancer is winnable. And to an extraordinary degree, the battles are being fought, and won, in San Diego.
Still, doctors here temper their enthusiasm with the caveat that the specific vaccine that has shown success with Hermesch is not a magic bullet for cancer. That’s because it’s patient-specific; it works only for Hermesch. And while this success signals a promising development in cancer treatment —custom, personalized therapy—it also demonstrates what it will take to defeat cancer: an arsenal of bullets and a diverse array of weapons designed to attack the many different forms of the disease on multiple fronts.
A Common Misconception
In 1974, President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, during a time when it was believed a single cure or vaccine could be found to wipe out cancer once and for all, just as smallpox and polio had been eradicated. It remains a common misconception today.
What researchers have learned is that a single cure is not possible. The abnormal, unregulated cell growth that defines cancer is the result of genetic mutations that can occur in any one of hundreds, if not thousands, of genes. Cancer is a disease of many, many faces. Even cancers occurring in the same tissue—breast, lung or prostate, for example—have distinct abnormalities that must be treated by equally distinct drugs or therapies to be truly effective.
“There is no one magic bullet like people thought there would be,” says Dr. Gordon Gill, a professor at UCSD School of Medicine who’s interim director of the UCSD Cancer Center. He and other researchers
say that because of this new understanding of tumors at the molecular level, cancers will soon be classified by their molecular makeup or tumor type rather than by their location in the body, as is done today.
“It was really naive to think that we could declare war on cancer before we knew who the enemy was,” Gill says. “We have to understand each molecular defect that causes cancer, and target that.”