Texas Tribune Festival: Panelists declare “golden era” for cancer care

Areeba Khwaja

Fifty percent of all cancer cases are completely preventable, yet according to experts in the field, health care in Texas is not translating this number to real life.

A panel of cancer experts and policy leaders, including bicyclist Lance Armstrong and president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Ronald DePinho, M.D., led a discussion on the future of cancer treatment at the Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday.

“Like millions of people, I sat in a doctor’s office and was told, ‘You have cancer,’” said Armstrong, a cancer survivor himself. ”That’s such a personal thing. Nothing prepares you for that.”

Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 and has now been cancer-free for almost 20 years. He said he appreciates the optimism surrounding treatment outlooks but emphasized that a “cure” for cancer will not happen overnight. 

According to DePinho, cancer is an extremely complicated phenomenon that is a constellation of numerous different diseases. This complexity means that finding an all-encompassing “cure” is challenging.

“At its most elemental level, it is a disease of the genes,” DePinho said, “Fortunately, after the Human Cancer Genome Project, we have a ‘periodic table’ for which genes are altered in which cancers, enabling us to develop new diagnostic devices and strategies.”

Yet the panelists claimed that scientific knowledge is not what’s stopping cancer treatment from advancing right now — it’s access to health care. According to panel moderator Jake Silverstein, 17 percent of all Texans are uninsured, a staggeringly large number especially in comparison to other states.

“It doesn’t matter what we can prevent or do. The most important thing is access to quality care,” DePinho said. “The level of disparity is the greatest challenge we have in cancer, not so much the fact that we have a can have a huge impact today without a single new discovery.”

State Representative Sarah Davis said limitations in budgeting and bipartisan politics play a role in health care access issues, but that the state has put forth its best efforts to provide care to Texans.

Additional issues such as a shortage of physicians and difficulty in reaching people of various different socioeconomic backgrounds within Texas only adds fuel to the fire, according to Davis.

“No one can deny that there is a healthcare problem in Texas,” Davis said.

Yet the panelists emphasized how far cancer treatment has come in the last half decade. James Willson, CSO of Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, asserted that what’s changed in treatment is the fact that knowledge has successfully been converted to drugs.

Looking to the future, cancer scientists are turning to new research in immunotherapy and information technology in the form of wearable devices. According to DePinho, while research is still needed to improve treatment options, a turning point has been reached where clinical proof of concepts has been established.

Specifically, the panelists discussed immunotherapy as the new wave in cancer treatment. These treatments fight cancer with patients’ own immune systems by deactivating cancer’s “brake” system, a mechanism that it engages to keep the immune system suppressed. Researchers at MD Anderson have discovered a new class of drugs that deactivates this braking mechanism and reawakens the immune system.

This kind of research is expected to grow quickly in the coming years in an effort to find a “cure” for cancer.

“Cancer’s greatest vulnerability is knowledge … and this is the golden era for cancer [care],” DePinho said. “This decade will change medicine forever … Knowledge and technology have converged to a point that has enabled us to significantly impact the prevention and treatment of cancer, a disease for which there was previously no hope.”