In a call to action at his final State of the Union Address last January, President Barack Obama charged Vice President Joe Biden with the duty of overseeing a new initiative to cure cancer “as we know it,” called the Cancer Moonshot. This comes exactly one year after the death of the Veep’s eldest son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who lost his battle with cancer in January 2015 at the age of 46.
According to the American Cancer Society, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) projected a surge of new cancer cases in the decade to come. In 2012, 14.1 million people worldwide were diagnosed with some form of the disease, resulting in 8.2 million deaths. By the year 2030, that number is expected to rise over fifty percent, to 21.7 million, with 13 million cancer-related deaths worldwide.
For decades, Western medicine has relied on limited means of treating malignant growths, primarily using chemo (a blood cell growth-inhibiting poison) and radiation therapies to prolong patients’ lives, if not placing them into permanent remission. However, these efforts often prove futile as patients endure severe side effects, decreased quality of life, and sometimes shortened lifespans due, not just to the disease state, but to the consequences of treatment itself.
With the proliferation of advancements in computer technology and science beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, modern medicine too saw major progress. In the 1970s, Genentech Incorporated emerged out of the San Francisco Bay Area, becoming the world’s first biotechnology company, synthesizing insulin in order to treat diabetes. Since then, the biotech industry has continued to utilize the human immune system, called immunotherapy, to combat disease in hopes of treating a host of illnesses – one of the most urgent being cancer.
In essence, immunotherapy is “designed to produce immunity to a disease or enhance the resistance of the immune.” In May 2016, researchers at Duke University made a “breakthrough” discovery – according to the United States Food and Drug Administration – identifying properties within the poliovirus which triggered the immune system, and effectively creating a promising new, safe method of destroying glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. After introducing a synthetic version of poliovirus into the body, the virus automatically infects the tumor. Scientists found that it subsequently signaled to the immune system to attack and destroy those cells. Furthermore, initial tests indicate that this method could be successful for treating several more types of cancers, including breast, colorectal, prostate cancers, pancreatic, liver, and renal cancers. Of course, this is not the only significant development to come out of immunotherapy. Similar clinical trials have been done on lung cancer, bladder cancer, and many more forms of the disease.
In recent years, start-up biotech companies like Gilead, Amgen, BioMarin, and Medivation have surfaced, capitalizing on this approach, and making great strides in the development of immunotherapies for an array of malignancies. Likewise, other well-established pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Roche, Johnson & Johnson, and Glaxosmithkline have begun efforts to acquire and/or develop their own immunotherapies and targeted treatments.