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Is a Cure Even Possible?

The war on cancer stretches back decades — President Richard Nixon announced his version in the early 1970s — and while improvements in treatments and survival rates have been made, a cure has remained, for the most part, elusive. After US President Barack Obama announced a new cancer 'moonshot' initiative in his State of the Union address this week, researchers and others began to debate whether achieving such a lofty goal of curing cancer is even possible.

The New York Times says that the project relies on an "outdated" view of cancer. Cancer, the Times notes, isn't one disease that needs one cure, but it is instead a collection of many diseases for which many cures will be needed. "Cancer is way more complex than anyone had imagined in 1970," Jose Baselga, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research and physician in chief and chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, tells the Times.

That sentiment is echoed by blogger Whizbang at Scientopia, though she adds that a larger problem is that researchers just don't yet have a good enough command of the basic biology involved to develop cures for most forms of cancer. Whizbang argues that greater funding of basic research projects as well as of clinical studies is needed as "[w]e can never predict what finding will provide the key to a breakthrough, no matter how good we believe our peer-review system may be."

Others, like William Nelson, director of the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, are more optimistic. First of all, he tells NPR that, for many people, there have been cancer cures. He also adds that recent developments in cancer genetics are giving researchers a better handle on what goes awry in cancer cells. Scientific American also points to advances in immunotherapy as a promising avenue for treatment.

George Demetri, director of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute's Center for Sarcoma and Bone Oncology, tells the Los Angeles Times that cancers may not be precisely cured, but they may become more controllable, just as infectious diseases like polio and tuberculosis have become. "[W]e don't fear [those infectious diseases] the way my grandparents and even my parents did," he says. "At some really deep level, the public now gets that these diseases are manageable. They don't feel that primal fear."

But getting to a cure will be slow going. As Obama told a fourth-grader yesterday, if there is to be a cure for cancer, it'll likely be in her lifetime, not his, the Associated Press says.

"Cancer will not end with a bang, but with a whimper," saya Benjamin Neel from New York University's Langone Medical Center in the LA Times.

"We're not going to wake up one day and see headlines, 'Cancer Cured!'" he adds. "What we're going to see is more and more cancers getting cured more and more often."

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