Echoing the words of former President Richard Nixon almost 40 years earlier, President Barack Obama last week expressed his commitment to launching a new effort to find “a cure for cancer in our time.”

Cancer was mentioned only briefly in Obama’s first speech to Congress, but it was a hopeful sign to many in the worlds of science and medicine who hope renewed attention will lead to a better-funded national effort to fight a scourge expected to kill 560,000 Americans this year.

“The president has challenged the cancer community to find a cure,” said Dr. Richard Schilsky, associate dean for clinical research at the University of Chicago. “Hopefully, it comes with sufficient support for expanded research so we have the resources we need to step up to that challenge.”
When Nixon asked Congress for funds to fight cancer in 1971, scientists did not fully understand the complexities of the disease. Recent advances in genetics and genomics have helped uncover some of cancer’s secrets, leading to new potential tools for treatment and early detection.

Research has revealed a complex disease of which there are at least 100 types, all caused by malfunctions of genes that control cell growth and division. Mutations can be triggered by sources as varied as viruses, inherited defects and cigarette smoke. Survival rates vary greatly by cancer type and stage at diagnosis, and cancer acts differently in different people.

“Increasingly, we’re learning that whether it is based on race or ethnicity or some other genetic characteristic, not everybody responds the same way to a standard course of treatment,” Schilsky said.

Some statistics suggest the war on cancer has been a losing battle. The grim tally: One in two men and one in three women in the United States are expected to develop cancer during their lifetimes. Death rates increased in 2006 for esophageal and bladder cancers among men, pancreatic cancer among women and liver cancer among men and women.

But other statistics tell of victories. Cancer incidence has been falling since 1999, largely because of declines in the most common cancers: lung, colorectal and prostate for men and breast and colorectal for women. The death rate from all cancers combined has been decreasing since 1991. In 2006, for the first time in U.S. history, fewer people died of cancer than the year before, according to the American Cancer Society.

Scientists say improvements in survival reflect progress in several areas: diagnosing certain cancers earlier and at more treatable stages and new and improved treatments. A record 750 drugs are moving through the research and development pipeline, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune