It's World Cancer Day and today we learnt from the World Health Organisation that cancer has surpassed heart disease as the biggest killer in Australia. Why aren't we curing cancer?
Although we have made progress with some cancers, such as leukaemia and Hodgkin's disease, is there any hope for cures for the biggest cancer killers, such as breast, lung and bowel cancer? The answer is yes, there is plenty of hope.
We have entered an exciting new era of cancer research whereby we can ‘crack the code'. What does this mean? It means we can actually now ‘sequence' the DNA of cancer cells in patients and identify the exact mutations that they have, the mutations that are actually causing that cancer. This is similar to how code-breakers cracked the enemy codes during the last world war, and in so doing were able to defeat the enemy.
This code-cracking has already produced results in lung cancer and melanoma, to name just two, and it should eventually lead to new treatments for all types of cancers. This might occur by finding molecular ‘keys' to turn off the engines that are driving these cancers, or it might be by creating vaccines that target the mutant proteins that are produced by the cancers, causing the immune system to attack and destroy the cancer in the same way that it attacks and destroys invading viruses. It won't produce cures tomorrow, but in the next few years we could see a whole array of new treatments being tried.
Our own lab at UWA is using DNA sequence data to generate vaccines for cancer, particularly asbestos cancers. This work is important for many reasons, one of which is that Australia has the highest incidence of asbestos cancers in the world, and also that they are incurable. We have already identified at least 30 mutant proteins which we are assessing for their capacity to function in therapeutic vaccines. It is exciting work for all of us in the research lab and I think it should encourage the community that in the future we will have much better treatments for cancer, Australia's ‘commonest killer', than we do today.