Killing Cancer, Much Too Slowly

Anyone with access to HBO should hasten to see “Vice Special Report: Killing Cancer,” a remarkable documentary look at the cutting edge of cancer therapy. Except there’s no cutting, irradiating or chemo involved. Instead, we visit a medical center in Ottawa where the idea of oncolytic virus therapy was born, or rather resurrected.

Years before, doctors noticed that women with cervical cancer who happened to be exposed to a common virus seemed to have a higher incidence of remission or cure of the cancer. It appeared that by some happy accident a virus had somehow been able to attack the cancer. Today, acting on this hint, researchers around the country have begun using modern genetic techniques to engineer viruses such as those for measles, smallpox, the common old and even HIV in order to turn them into weapons capable of targeting and destroying cancers.

In case studies from the Mayo Clinic, M.D. Anderson in Houston and Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, we witness patients with multiple myeloma, glioblastoma and childhood leukemia as they experience results that seem almost as surprising to their physicians as to themselves.

Readers of the exhaustive and depressing chronicle of cancer fighting, “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, are well aware that for centuries one miracle cure after another has been proclaimed only to prove partial, inadequate, temporary, disappointing, chimerical as the wily adversary of cancer, like an impossible to kill science-fiction mutant, keeps rising from the dead.

Perhaps virus therapy will be added to the long list of cures that failed. And, perhaps for that reason even front line doctors presiding over apparent miracles are chary of overstating their case or appearing too excited. But one after another, they quietly suggest this virus therapy may, over the next few years, actually offer hope that some cancers that were previously all but hopeless can be outwitted and cured.

Work on this technique has been underway for years already and several researchers interviewed admit to frustration that the pace has been slower than the promise would justify. First, because the market debacle of 2008 dried up private funding. Second, because the idiocy of an across-the-board sequester of government resources greatly curtailed access to public monies.

Yes, the deficit hawks are right. Government can’t do everything and certainly shouldn’t do much without raising enough revenues to pay the bill when it comes due. But that’s not an argument for a meat axe approach simply because petulant partisans refuse to sit down and budget together in a responsible way. The result of that has been disgraceful: cancer research and aid for poor children slashed while duplicative programs, weapons systems even the Pentagon doesn’t want, and tax breaks for hedge fund managers survive.

If a great and prosperous country, a technological superpower can’t find the money to fund promising research for a disease that kills 600,000 or its citizens a year (14 million worldwide), something is really wrong. Is keeping a taxes a few dollars lower per capita really more important than that? Is another redundant aircraft carrier or bribe to a rented ally really a better investment?

Cancer research is not an expense, it is an opportunity and a moral responsibility. Failing to pursue this line of inquiry with vigor is not just irrational, it’s fiscally irresponsible. Would we prefer that researchers in Japan, Europe or China be at the forefront? Would we prefer to pay for medical research to cure cancer today or billions more in the future to treat Medicare patients for the disease? Up until recent years, meekly balking at bold steps rather than striding confidently into the future hasn’t been an American trait. If it is now, our decline is foreordained.

Like the reporter for “Killing Cancer,” Shane Smith, I take this issue seriously. His mother and stepmother both battled cancer. Both my mother and father died of it. I’m probably next. So are you. What are we waiting for? Encourage your elected representatives to do the right thing for a change, if they can take a break from fund raising, mud slinging and pandering to special interests. Cancer research is in everyone’s interest. Even theirs.

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