New breakthroughs in cancer research include AI and vaccines

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New breakthroughs in cancer research include an ancient virus, AI, and personalized vaccines

May 3, 2023 -

Woman with cancer during chemotherapy recovering from illness in hospital © By NDABCREATIVITY/stock.adobe.com

Woman with cancer during chemotherapy recovering from illness in hospital © By NDABCREATIVITY/stock.adobe.com

Woman with cancer during chemotherapy recovering from illness in hospital © By NDABCREATIVITY/stock.adobe.com

The word cancer carries a weight with it. The word lurks in the dark corners of conversations and gets caught in the throats of the mourning. We “battle” cancer, a disease, a monster that leaves a trail of sorrow and tears behind it. Cancer takes the lives of millions and can appear anywhere, anytime. So the word carries an immense weight.

Cancer can wrought suffering and death, and worse, the suffering and death of loved ones—but that is all it can bring. Christ conquered all death and suffering; he will heal all in the new creation.

While we’re here on earth, broken from the Fall, warriors fighting against cancer arm themselves with technology developed by the smiths of medicine: scientists. Although the fight against cancer may seem hopeless, science continues to break new ground to help in the battle against cancer.

How does cancer work?

Cancer is a genetic disease that occurs when corrupted cells multiply across the body at an uncontrolled rate. The reproducing cells form tumors, which can be cancerous (malignant) or benign. In the normal process of life, cells will self-destruct, naturally dying off when they become old or damaged. Cancer occurs when the genetic code breaks down within just one cell, causing the damaged cells to reproduce in spite of its corruption. Cancerous cells can build small strongholds in the body that use blood to bring nutrients, expel waste, and defend against our body’s defenses. Cancerous cells can adapt, even within one person.

Cancer can arise because of our parents’ genetics or our body’s context. An unhealthy diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, overexposure to the sun, and other factors increase the risk of cancer.

There are over a hundred kinds of cancer, but experts stress that each cancer case is unique, making it notoriously difficult to research. Cancer continues to hold out against the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of development to end it.

Nevertheless, while finding a one-size-fits-all cure may be out of reach, scientists chip at the disease every year with new discoveries and innovative medicines. Recently, cancer research has seemed particularly fruitful.

New developments in cancer research

Every new understanding should be considered a victory, even if it appears unfavorable. A recent analysis showed that cancer possesses the “almost infinite ability of tumors to evolve and survive.” The scientists concluded, “We need more focus on prevention, with a ‘universal’ cure unlikely any time soon.”

Another study in April revealed a surprising ally for cancer patients: the remnants of an ancient virus.

Human DNA has coopted the DNA of viruses in past millennia. The chaos unleashed by cancerous tumors can accidentally release the parts of DNA that belonged to those viruses, which can seem like a real virus to our immune system. Our immune system can then attack the tumor, mistaking it for a viral infection. This led to a better survival rate in patients. Scientists are now working on possibly using this in therapeutic and preventative vaccines.

Given that cancer is a genetic disease, could we make a vaccine that uses mRNA to combat it?

Yes. In fact, the mRNA vaccines were being developed for cancer before immunologists used them to prevent Covid-19.

Another study released in April showed patients using a personalized mRNA vaccine were “44 percent more likely to be alive and avoid new tumors than those who received only the standard of care.” Cancer vaccines can’t attack current tumors; they’re designed to prevent high-risk recurrence of that cancer. And, because they’re personalized vaccines that use each patient’s specific DNA, they cost $185,000 a year. Of course, people won’t have to pay that much if these vaccines go to market, but it’s too early to tell how much it will cost for patients.

Bone cancer is a particularly nasty cancer that usually affects children, and it’s been a blind spot for research in the past few decades, until recently. A new drug that greatly increased the survival rate of patients was discovered this year. Dr. Darrell Green, head researcher over the project, said he was inspired to work on bone cancer because his best friend died as a teenager from bone cancer.

A 2022 treatment and study of eighteen colon cancer patients was termed a “scientific miracle” when 100 percent went into complete remission. The treatment uses a drug called dostarlimab and helps the immune system target and destroy cancer cells.

As of late, scientists are using artificial intelligence with greater and greater efficacy to predict and identify certain cancers. They excel at identifying cancers, trained on countless pictures and data sets. They can train new cancer doctors using those massive databases.

Due to the tireless efforts of scientists and countless billions of dollars, the “overall cancer death rate declined by 31 percent from 1991 to 2018.”

While there’s still a long way to go to curing cancer, we can hope for even greater protections against this killer.

We’re more than our cells

A popular position in academia says persons are nothing more than their arrangement of atoms (maybe “quantum states” would be better). These “reductivist” positions say humans are merely a collection of cells arranged in such a way as to replicate our genetic information.

One project called “Blueprint” aims to preserve our physical bodies and extend our lives as far as possible. The entrepreneur behind the project, and its only test subject, spends $2 million annually for the most precise medical testing possible. His body is overseen by thirty doctors for optimal life-stretching performance, and he lives his life around that optimization. He’s on track to live well beyond one hundred years old.

Despite our collective hunger for control over our lives, we will never know the day or hour of Christ’s return or our own deaths. Even if we cure cancer, we won’t cure the human condition with science.

While we’re certainly made up of cells, we’re clearly not just cells. A worldview that says we’re nothing but matter will also say reality is fundamentally chaotic—so cancer makes sense to that belief.

Yet it is precisely because cancer seems so random that it is so horrible. God created us for good things; cancer is not good. Yet even cancer, which can so cruelly and arbitrarily take life, does not hold power over our eternal lives.

Take a moment to pray for people battling cancer in your life, and thank God for the ones in remission. Ask the Lord to guide science toward new discoveries and medicines.

We can take comfort in hope. Even while we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” he will never forsake us in mourning or the hard battle against cancer (Psalm 23:4).

While death may indeed sting with an aching power, we can nevertheless proclaim to ourselves with Paul, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Christ will defang death and declaw cancer. In one sense, he already has.

Eventually, Christ will make everything right. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

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