June 13, 1997

Basic research still key to war on cancer: VCC board

Basic research still key to war on cancer: VCC board

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Cancer Center board members (from right) Don and Faye Pierce, Frances Williams Preston and Peggy Wood wore 3-D glasses to get a lesson in x-ray crystallography from graduate student Cheryl Lanzo (left).

Recent assertions in the medical literature and lay press that the war on cancer has been "a bust" ignore the important progress made in the fight against the disease, Vanderbilt Cancer Center Board of Overseers members were told last week.

That progress, which includes a recent decline ‹ for the first time in recorded history ‹ in overall cancer rates, was made possible by years of rigorous research into the basics of the disease, VCC researchers said at the board's spring meeting.

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed by stories in USA Today and other news media, suggested that death rates from cancer have not begun to fall quickly enough and that the battle should shift from treatment to prevention.

The National Cancer Institute recently announced that from 1991-95, overall cancer death rates had declined 2.6 percent.

"For the first time, we've seen a real indication that cancer can be beaten by a combination of prevention, early detection and aggressive treatment," said Dr. Lawrence J. Marnett, Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research and associate director for Basic Science Research for the VCC. "It's exciting to think that the things we've been working on are having an impact.

"Some people look at the statistics and bemoan our failure. But I look at these numbers very differently," Marnett said. "Twenty years ago, we were completely in the dark about the molecular causes of cancer. We've been going around the room turning on the lights, and we're at the point where we can begin to see better strategies to prevent and treat the disease."

"This is no time to back off that commitment to research. We should expand our commitment across the board."

Efforts to prevent cancer are important and should be based on scientific investigation, just as new treatments are, said Dr. David H. Johnson, Cornelius Abernathy Craig Professor in Medical and Surgical Oncology and associate director for Clinical Programs in the VCC.

"The research should be just as rigorous," Johnson said.

Dr. Harold Moses, Benjamin F. Byrd Professor of Oncology and director of the VCC, said that the data presented in the recent articles showing a stagnation in cancer death rates did not take into account the rise in incidence of the disease.

"We don't know where we'd have been without the improvements in detection and treatment," Moses said, noting that the National Cancer Institute stands ready to fund solid research in prevention.

"The basic research is what will provide the background necessary to any successful prevention."