Humans are complex organisms. Not only are we composed of trillions of cells, but those cells come in an incredible array. From a single fertilized reproductive cell dividing in two, our cells somehow differentiate into at least 200 different variations.
New tools constantly reveal more about the inner workings of cells. For example, we have found that some cell types specialise in transmitting and storing information. Electrical messages speeding through the central nervous system travel at more than 100 miles per hour.
Red blood cells deliver oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and remove carbon dioxide. Trillions of them circulate in the bloodstream at any given moment, and they are replenished in the bone marrow at an astonishing rate of 2 million per second.
Unfortunately, the great variety of cells that make human life possible also makes it difficult to design a single cure to repair genes when they become corrupted and threaten to change into cancers. Because there are hundreds of different cell types, there are hundreds of different kinds of cancer.
One of the reasons cancer isn’t a single disease is that each cell type behaves differently when it goes haywire. A drug that works in one type of cancer often won’t work on another. Even in the same cancer, mutations can be different.
Meanwhile, as we begin to conquer other diseases, cancer is moving up the ranks as the leading cause of death. In the United Kingdom, for example, it has already overtaken cardiovascular disease. In the United States, it is poised to do so.
That’s one result of longer lifespans: we increase our chances of getting cancer.
I had my own brush with this threat at the ripe old age of 20.
Thankfully, I’m still alive, thanks to technology that became available by the 1990s. Only a few decades sooner and I’d just be a memory.
Since then, both the size of the problem and the cost of treating cancer have only been rising.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that cancer of all kinds cost the U.S. economy $124 billion in 2010. By 2020, that figure is expected to rise to $200 billion. If we add indirect costs such as loss of productivity and premature death, the price of cancer doubles.
And of course, there is no way to put a price on the loss of life itself. What is the cost of losing your husband or wife, son or daughter, mother or father?
Although I don’t expect we’ll hit upon a magic formula for treating all cancers anytime soon, we will continue to make inroads treating different types.
Nonetheless, progress seems horribly slow. The truth is that the vast majority of ‘cured’ cancer patients are not far away from a return of their cancer as metastasised cells can no longer be reined in. For a number of cancers, the true cure rate over 20 years is 4%.
Yet no one is giving up. There are more drugs in development for cancer than for any disease, partly because people will pay huge sums when lives are at stake.
The market is enormous, and innovative biotechnology pioneers who succeed in using the latest science and technology to find new ways to vanquish the disease will make their investors wealthy.
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