Dr. Peter Rosen shares his thoughts on whether a cure for cancer is realistic and the progress that has been made. Dr. Rosen is a Medical Director at the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.
EmpowHER Correspondent: In 2009, President Obama, who lost both his mother and grandmother to cancer, vowed to seek a “cure for cancer in our time”. But is a cure realistic?
Dr. Peter Rose: I think the idea of a cure for cancer is probably not realistic because cancer is too many diseases and they’re each, within the diseases there’s great heterogeneity. So I think the answer is to learn more about the workings of the cancer cell, design rational therapies based upon the mutations or other events within the cell and control the disease hopefully with medications.
In many cases we have cured cancer.
I think perhaps to pick one shining example of a great success is the story of really the conquest of a form of leukemia called chronic myeloid leukemia. The story is long, but I will try to make it brief. This was a disease which was uniformly fatal. The average survival was somewhere between three and four years. Patients would feel well and do well for a period of time and then with standard therapy they would go on and progress and die from their disease.
We knew there was something very different about this disease because it was the first malignancy in which a chromosome defect that was consistent was found in every case - so-called ‘Philadelphia chromosome’ because it was described in Philadelphia.
When we tore apart that chromosome defect we found what it did was that two chromosomes broke and then rejoined at a certain point and at that point, a protein was manufactured which, when injected into animals, would cause leukemia.
So we actually found, within the cell, the key to the mystery of this disease.
With that discovery, which really took place in the 1990s, chemists were able to synthesize drugs which impeded the genetic ability to make that protein, and that led to the discovery of a drug called Gleevec which was introduced in around 2001 and has totally transformed the outlook for this disease.
Patients are now still alive, who were treated in the original clinical trials going back to 2000, with no evidence of the Philadelphia chromosome in their body.
They remain on the drug. We believe at the present time it’s essential to stay on it, but the results are quite astounding. We have converted something that essentially led to death within a few years to something one can live with.
Cancer cures, particular certain forms of cancer, in the pediatric age group have been great progress made.
For example, acute leukemia of children used to be fatal within a few months. About 80 percent of children are cured of that disease. There are similar stories. In adults we talk about Hodgkin’s disease, some of the lymphomas as cured. Lance Armstrong is a great story about testicular cancer. So right now, as things stand today, about half the patients with cancer are being cured.
EmpowHER Correspondent: Dr. Rosen says that how we look at cancer may need to be modified.
Dr. Peter Rose: The question is, what stands in the way in some of the more difficult situations, what are the obstacles, what are the possible pathways that will allow us to prolong life, if not cure, maybe not always cured, but we don’t cure many things. We don’t cure diabetes. We don’t cure hypertension. We don’t cure heart disease. These are controllable situations. People live very nice lives despite not totally eradication of their disease.
So I think in some cases, cancer will be cured and is being cured. In other situations, control is perhaps a better word.
EmpowHER Correspondent: Good news for those with cancer. For more information and health news that empowers you and your family, visit EmpowHER.com.
About Dr. Peter Rosen, M.D.:
Peter Rosen, MD, is the Medical Director of Clinical Research at The Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center. He is board-certified in internal medicine with sub-specialty certifications in hematology and medical oncology.
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