In 1971, President Richard Nixon announced a new initiative: the War on Cancer. Just as his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had spurred Americans to conquer the moon, Nixon hoped to be remembered as the president who had enabled the country to defeat cancer once and for all. Under the National Cancer Act, the Federal Government has spent over $100 billion on cancer research, and while some progress has been made, there have also been obstacles and setbacks.
At the time the act was passed, perhaps the largest obstacle was a murky understanding of what cancer actually was. Although doctors had been describing cancer for centuries, most of those descriptions and observations were about effects, rather than about the causes or the nature of the disease. Researchers quickly realized that “cancer” is actually a blanket term for a variety of conditions with disparate causes, that develop in different ways. All they really have in common is uncontrolled cell growth; the nature of this growth varies with, among other factors, where in the body it occurs.
Recently, however, researchers discovered something else cancers may all have in common. Unusually high levels of a protein called CD47 were found in leukemia patients in 2003. This protein is normally used to help the body’s own cancer-fighting mechanism, part of the immune system, distinguish between valid targets and cells that need to be left alone; the cancer cells were evading detection by flying false colors. Now scientists have discovered all sorts of tumor cells waving the same flag. In fact, Stanford University biologists have found the protein in every cancer they looked at. Not only that, but in tests, by suppressing the activity of the protein, the scientists were able to get the immune cells to destroy the cancer.
This treatment has only been tested in laboratory petri dishes with cultivated immune cells and in mice, although with human as well as mouse cancers. It’s been tested on breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate tumors—a list that includes three of the ten most common and four of the ten deadliest kinds—and was largely effective against all of them. It is unknown if it would be effective in humans, but if it would, it would be as close as we’ve come to curing cancer, period.