'Holy grail' of cancer cure hides progress made, says charity

Caroline Davies
Photograph: AP

The obsession with a cure for cancer as the “holy grail” of research on the disease means the public is unaware of how much progress has been made in allowing sufferers to live longer, a charity has found.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) said the effect risked creating an overly binary “cure or nothing” approach to cancer that could be unhelpful, not only in masking progress, but to understanding how best to tackle the disease in future.

A survey for the organisation found that less than one-third of people think cancer can be controlled long term, despite survival times for those diagnosed doubling in a decade and their quality of life improving.

The average patient now lives more than 10 years after diagnosis, turning it into a manageable disease long term. But only 28% of people believe cancers can be controlled long term, and 26% think major progress is being made against the disease, the poll – conducted by YouGov – found.

In comparison, 46% of people said they believed heart disease can be managed in the long term and 77% said the same for diabetes.

The ICR, a charity and research institute, said focusing exclusively on a cure overlooked the “huge” progress made. The reality for many with advanced cancers is that cures are not yet possible, but “we are doing much better at offering new personalised treatments that can greatly extend lives”, the ICR said.

The charity is calling for more attention to be given to cancer’s ability to resist treatment so more people can live longer.

One third of people misunderstood the widely used term “all clear” to mean the disease is completely cured, rather than simply undetectable and with the potential to still return, the poll of 2,103 members of public and 366 patients found.

Only 60% understood the term “drug resistance” means cancer treatment has stopped working, with many assuming the term related to antibiotic treatment. Fifteen per cent of the public, and 16% of cancer patients, were not aware that cancer can resist treatment and return.

The ICR is launching the world’s first “Darwinian” drug discovery programme at its new cancer centre aimed at increasing the proportion of patients whose disease can be controlled long term.

A final £14m needs to be raised to finish the Centre of Cancer Drug Discovery, and equip it with the state-of-the-art facilities needed for it ambitious Darwinian drug programme. Scientists who will be working there believe its pioneering approach can deliver long-term control and effective cures for cancer comparable to progress made in HIV.

Barbara Ritchie Lines, from Birmingham, underwent eight years of treatment after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. Her cancer is now undetectable.
She said: “When I first got diagnosed, I was told that I had maybe only 12 months – but it’s been 14 years, and here I am. I’m so grateful that I now have all this time to spend with my new grandchildren.”

Dr Olivia Rossanese, who will be head of biology at the centre, said: “We believe cancer should no longer be a case of ‘cure or nothing’. At the ICR our aim is to discover many more anti-evolution treatments to overcome drug resistance, so we can not only cure a greater proportion of patients but also to give others with advanced disease the chance of a much longer and better life”.

Prof Paul Workman, the ICR chief executive, said: “Overcoming the challenge of cancer evolution and drug resistance is the key to defeating cancer. If we can finish off cancer evolution, we will effectively finish cancer.”