Mapping Cancer Genes to Find a Cure

In its "Where America Stands" series, CBS News is looking at a broad spectrum of issues facing this country in the new decade.

With a stroke of President Nixon's pen, the National Cancer Act of 1971 elevated the conquest of cancer to a national crusade.

"We may look back on this day and this action as being the most significant action taken during my administration," President Nixon said.

Almost 40 years later, America's so-called war on cancer drags on.

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CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric reports the top five cancer killers account for nearly 13 percent of all deaths nationwide. Although the number of new cancer cases has been dropping by 1 percent a year, and cancer deaths have been falling by more than 1.5 percent, cancer still claims more than 500,000 American lives annually. That's 1,500 people every single day.

"That's about one every minute. That's like three jumbo jets crashing every day," said Dr. Francis Collins.

Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health,and oversees the National Cancer Institute.

NCI's budge for cancer research this year is $5.1 billion. But Dr. Collins said if that sounds adequate, we better wake up and smell the coffee.

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"Over the last 30 years, we as a nation have spent $9 per American per year on cancer research. Enough to buy you a couple of lattes," he said.

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Still, there have been strides. In the 1970's only half of those diagnosed with any form of cancer lived longer than five years. Now, about two-thirds do. Clearly, that still leaves America's report card with plenty of room for improvement.

"I'd give the country an 'A' for effort in terms of research," Dr. Collins said. "But I'd not really give us much better than about a 'C' in terms of implementation of that into radical new therapies that are both effective and low in toxicity."

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THE PROBLEM

The problem facing today's scientific community? How to move cancer treatment beyond the carpet-bombing approach of standard chemotherapy into an era of smart bombs - using targeted therapies that destroy only the cancer.

Beverly Sotir, 71, was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago.

Sotir is one of the 20 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer who never smoked. She said she smoked one cigarette at age 16.

An active mother of eight, and grandmother to 14, Sotir was told her cancer was in stage four in both lungs.

"They tell you, you have six months," she said. "And what are you going to do in six months?"

Sotir was first treated with standard chemotherapy - along with a somewhat "off the wall" form of therapy, all her own.

"You hung your lung scans in your bathroom," Couric asked. "Why?"
"Because when I came out of the shower, I wanted to see them," Sotir replied. "And I swear at them every morning."

But doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston had yet another approach in mind. Early last year, they screened her tumors for a specific gene called "ALK" - an abnormality found in about five percent of lung cancers, and also common in a type of lymphoma.

"We have a drug that happened to be on the shelf for this particular genetic alteration, that we can now simply apply to those five percent of lung cancers with that genetic alteration," said Dr. Ronald A. DePinho. Dr. DePinho, director of the Belfer Institute for Cancer Science at Dana-Farber, is working on a solution.

Sotir's now participating in a clinical trial - using that drug which targets the defective gene, and turns it off. In the last six months, some of her tumors have shrunk by more than 50 percent - others have disappeared.

"A knowledge of those genes and the genetic alterations that occur in cancer will provide us with new ways of attacking this most dreaded enemy," Dr. DePinho said.

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The Solution

A worldwide initiative called the Cancer Genome Atlas - a federally-funded project that aims to build a complete catalogue of all the genetic glitches that make good cells go bad.

Cancer Genome Atlas

"Cancer occurs when basically the genes go haywire," Couric asked.

"That's correct," Dr. DePinho replied.

"And are sending wrong signals to the cells?"

"Correct," said Dr. DePinho. "If we can identify those special elements that are driving the cancer process, and direct our therapies squarely against those mission critical genetic elements, then we're going to have far more effective treatments to the disease."

This past fall, President Obama announced the NIH will spend $275 million to expand the Genome Projectfrom studying just 3 types of cancer to more than 20.

"That will give us, for the first time, a comprehensive look at the landscape of what is wrong in the cancer cell," Dr. Collins said.

It could be five to ten years before the Cancer Genome Atlas is complete. So they've made two other areas of research major priorities: nanotechnology - which uses tiny toxic particles the size of one-billionth of a meter - to hit cancerous cells - like a million silver bullets.

The other is immunotherapy - which harnesses the body's own white blood cells - to fight cancer just as they would an infection.

"All of these things together, will give us that Normandy invasion that we need," Dr. DePinho said.

In the meantime, people like Beverly Sotir, are learning to fight cancer whatever way they can.

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