Tomorrow night at 10 pm on the east and west coasts of the United States, Vice, the TV arm of the fast-growing Vice media empire, will air a special on HBO that posits that scientists are closing in on a cure for cancer.
“Today in real time there is a revolution happening in the treatment of cancer and the story is almost too incredible to believe,” Shane Smith, the founder and CEO of Vice Media. “That (a) the diseases that used to kill us en masse like smallpox, measles, and even HIV actually holding the key to stopping the disease in its tracks and (b) that for the first time in medical history we just might be on the verge of curing cancer.”
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you that Vice shouldn’t be talking about curing cancer, that this is unneeded hype that gives unmerited hope to millions of cancer patients, and that Smith should do a better job minding his knitting.
Not quite. The special (HBO gave me a preview copy) does a very good job capturing why some scientists are so excited about the state of cancer research. I described much the same feeling last year in a cover story about one of the same technologies Vice is touting. But I think it focuses way too much on viruses, missing the forest of cancer research for a single tree, and, yes, there are caveats that should be stated more strongly.
There are two reasons to be wildly optimistic about the state of cancer research. One is that new treatments that harness the immune system to attack tumors to lead, in some cases, to long-lasting remissions, even cures. This includes the treatments Vice profiles, but also drugs that make tumor cells visible to our bodies so they can be destroyed.
The second is that new genetic technologies are allowing doctors to start to look at tumors based on what mutations have caused the cells in them to go haywire. That means new targeted drugs like Gleevec, Rituxan, and Herceptin that add years to patients’ lives. It may also mean new types of diagnostic tests that can detect cancer early, when genetic material from tumors first starts to circulate in the blood. I think we truly are at a moment of revolution.