Timberlake: Are we ready to cure cancer?


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As science grows closer to developing a cure for cancer, speculations arise regarding whether the world can be home to the amount of people cured along with the growing population.

Ian Timberlake

In 2008, there was an estimate of 12.7 million new cancer cases along with 7.6 million cancer-related deaths. The previous year, cancer accounted for about 13 percent of all global deaths, with nearly 64 percent of all these deaths occurring in developed nations. With over 70 conventionally named organs in the human body, there are over 200 different types of known cancer — all of which are only treatable, not curable.

The United Nations and US Census reports the global population in 2050 could be between 7.5 and 10.5 billion people. The Worldwatch Institute said, “This surge in human numbers threatens to offset any savings in resource use from improved efficiency, as well as any gains in reducing per-capita consumption. Even if the average American eats 20 percent less meat in 2050 than in 2000, total U.S. meat consumption will be 5 million tons greater in 2050 due to population growth.”

To add, “Every day in 2003, some 11,000 more cars merged onto Chinese roads — 4 million new private cars during the year. Auto sales increased by 60 percent in 2002 and by more than 80 percent in the first half of 2003. If growth continues apace, 150 million cars could jam China’s streets by 2015 — 18 million more than were driven on U.S. streets and highways in 1999.”

Just touching the surface of our population growth and resource consumption, can we really afford to cure cancer with the current state of our global consumption?

Within the last year alone, researchers have made considerable steps toward finding a cure for cancer. As I see it, we are on the cusp of a legitimate cure for the second largest cause of death, just behind heart disease.

Abbreviated, these considerable steps include:

German Cancer Research Center and Heidelberg University Hospital found a weak point in cancerous cells that effectively kills the cells when the HDAC11 enzyme molecule is turned off.

Researchers at McMaster University have discovered a drug, thioridazine, that kills cancer stem cells without major side-effects.

Australian researchers have discovered the mechanism in which breast cancer cells avoid the immune system and develop within the body.

South Korean scientists in lab tests were able to cause cancer cells to “self destruct” after being induced to specific magnetic fields.

Published in Nature journal, researchers have engineered a safe virus that, when injected intravenously, will target only cancerous cells.

UCLA has shown cancerous cells can be fought by stimulating the immune system with a protein that targets tumors.

The list continues.

I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t attempt to find a cure (personally, I’ve had family members affected by cancerous conditions, among other things). In fact, I suggest the opposite — but when the United States accounts for less than five percent of the global population and consumes over one quarter of the world’s fuels, what sort of impact would the world see should nearly 13 percent of all global deaths become abated?

A one-stop cancer cure wouldn’t fix all cancer-related problems overnight, but it would spread faster around the world than cancer spreads through the human body, which is immeasurably faster than the rate of global economic, social, and resource consumption changes.

Solving any of the world’s leading causes of death would induce a massive influx of global change. Cures for heart disease, HIV, respiratory ailments, alzheimers, diabetes, nephrosis, cancer included, are all contenders to change the world not just in a positive way, but in a very damaging way should we not be prepared for the change.

Our global society, specifically the developed nations, should take resource consumption seriously even just on this basis — let alone other reasons such as standard population growth, environmental impact, and cost.

In the documentary Surviving Progress, one of the most inquisitive lines I have ever heard stated was, “If humans go extinct on this planet our epitaph on our gravestone is going to be ‘why’.”

I think Harvard social psychologist Dan Gilbert sums it up, “Our brains were evolved for a very different world than the one in which we are living. They were evolved for a world in which people lived in very small groups, rarely met anybody that was terribly different from themselves, had rather short lives, of which there were very few choices and the highest priority was to eat and mate, today. We are the only species on this planet that has ever held its own fate in its hands. We have no significant predators, we are masters of our physical environment, things that normally cause other species to become extinct are no longer any threat to us. The only thing that can destroy us and doom us, are our own decisions. If we’re not here in 10,000 years, it’s going to be because we underestimated the odds of our future pains and overestimated the value of our present pleasures.”


Ian Timberlake is a senior in aerospace engineering from Chicago, Illinois.