Curing Cancer?

In January, Israeli biotech company Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd (AEBi) made headlines with the grandiose claim that they would have a cure for cancer within a year, with chairman Dan Aridor announcing that the treatment will be “effective from day one”, and will last just “a duration of a few weeks” with “no or minimal side effects”.


Experts, however, are unsurprisingly sceptical. AEBi say that their experiments on mice have been so successful that clinical trails will soon begin, but are reluctant to publish their findings in a medical journal until their patents have been secured.


“One should never say never in science, but I think it is quite unlikely that we will see a single magic bullet for cancer,” Dr Benjamin G Neel, professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine and director of the Laura and Iscaac Perlmutter Cancer Center, tells Forbes. “We don’t have single magic bullets for infectious disease—different infections require different antibiotics, and even then, antibiotic resistance develops.”


Cancer accounts for more than 200 different diseases, each the result of varying combinations of genetic mutations within various cells. Some cancers can already be cured, and Neel notes that all those cures are different—regardless of the fact that most clinical trials for new cancer drugs usually take 10-15 years to be approved. AEBi’s claims, he says, are verging on cruel to current cancer sufferers, sentiments backed up by both Cancer Research UK, and the American Cancer society who state on their blog, that, based on similar claims of previous breakthrough cancer-treating technologies, “the odds are that it won’t be successful”.


Though not a cure-all, one of the most interesting—and promising—potential cancer-busting compounds comes courtesy of the magnolia tree. More than 250 disease-fighting ingredients can be found in the bark, stems and flowers of the fragrant plant, and have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese, Japanese and Native American medicines.


However, in contemporary medicine, of particular interest is the compound honokiol.  Extracted from the bark—and existing nowhere else—honokiol has been shown to not only shrink tumours, but even prevent them from growing to begin with. It appears especially effective for head and neck tumours by blocking the epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR—a protein found in abundance in these forms of the disease. A study published in the journal Oncotarget by Veterans Affairs Research Communications and the University of Alabama found honokiol better binds with EFGR than even gefitinib, the drug commonly used to treat such cancers.


A separate study, published by the National Center for Biological Information concluded, that though further examination is warranted, “honokiol appears to be a promising natural agent for cancer prevention and therapy”. Magical magnolia harbours another potential cancer-busting compound in the form of magnolol, or MAG, which, in preclinical studies, has been found to target cancers such as those of the lung, colon, skin, breast, prostate and gall bladder.


Cancers, too, however, can become resistant to antibiotics, just like infections, as noted by Dr Neel above. With that in mind, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) has recently developed a programme aimed at eliminating the disease’s ability to evolve, though such a drug may still be decade away. According to ICR chief executive Paul Workman, it is cancer’s such ability to adapt that is the causes of most deaths, and the biggest challenge faced in overcoming it. Though the industry will always strive to discover that elusive cancer cure, Workman says that until then, an evolutionary approach enables the possibility of long-term control with a better quality of life. “We would like to take some of the fear away from advanced cancer,” he tells the Guardian, “and hope patients will benefit from new approaches that may not always give them the ‘all clear’, but could keep cancer at bay for many years.”


Cancer Facts… and Fiction

  • One in three Kiwis will be affected by cancer, with 23,000 diagnosed each year, and more than 9,500 deaths.
  • Around a third of New Zealand deaths are attributed to cancer, making it the nation’s leading killer.
  • New Zealand’s five most common cancers are: skin, lung, prostate, colorectal, and breast.
  • Eating healthy is one of the best ways to fend off illness, but don’t believe the hype about ‘superfood’. According to Cancer Research UK, it’s nothing but “a marketing term used sell products and has no scientific basis”.
  • No credible scientific studies have shown cannabis cures cancer (ditto for any other ‘miracle’ herbal remedy doing the rounds online. And, yes, sharks can get cancer too). By far the most effective treatment, if caught early, is surgery. Radiotherapy is generally more successful than drugs, while chemotherapy, though often a last resort, has also helped cure some cancers.
  • Mobile phones do not cause cancer. Nor do power lines.
  • Over the past 40 years, survival rates in the UK have doubled, with death rates dropping by 10 percent.
  • In the US, cancer deaths have dropped steadily since the 1990s.
  • A shocking study released in March showed Aucklanders were more than twice as likely to survive bowel cancer surgery than the rest of the country.
  • Treatment is better across the ditch—between 2013-17, around 2,500 Kiwis would not have succumbed to cancer if they had lived in Australia.
  • Far from being a contemporary disease, cancer was described by doctors of antiquity, and has even been found in dinosaur bones. It is, however, certainly on the rise.