A leading national cancer expert who visited Longview Thursday said he believes scientists and researchers will be able to cure most types of cancer in the next 10 years.
“These are just incredibly exciting times in cancer biology treatment. Believe that we will get there and we will develop curative therapies for all cancers,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, the president and director at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“Our goal is to make cancer like ... it’s something that doesn’t change your life forever; it happens and it’s simply another step in a long and happy, healthy and productive life,” Gilliland said.
Gilliland toured the PeaceHealth Cancer Clinic and also was the keynote speaker at the Cowlitz Economic Development Council’s annual meeting, held at the Cowlitz Expo Center Thursday. He also did a phone interview with The Daily News on Tuesday.
Cancerous tumors put the human immune system to ‘sleep,’ allowing them to cause havoc in the human body. But, armed with new research about the molecular switches or gauges that turn the immune system ‘on’ and ‘off,’ experts can develop medicines that can turn the immune system back ‘on’ so it can attack the foreign cells or tumors that cause cancer, Gilliland said.
Gilliland said these advances are similar to what he referred to as the “golden age” of medicine in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when antibiotics were first used to effectively treat bacterial infections.
“We have the capability to develop approaches for curative cancers in a short time frame. If we’re not able to get there within 10 years, then shame on us, because we have the insights. We just need to make sure we have the resources to implement the medicine,” Gilliland said in the interview.
Within the last five years, researchers in the cancer community have come to realize that activating the immune system could be the next big breakthrough for developing effective and marketable cures for cancer, he said. It’s an approach that mobilizes the body’s own defenses and is dramatically different from chemotherapy, which kills cancer cells but also kills healthy cells, or bone marrow transplants, he said.
Gilliland noted the recent example of former President Jimmy Carter, who was diagnosed in August 2015 with metastatic melanoma of the brain and liver, which was regarded as almost always fatal. Carter was treated with CAR T-cells, which is a new genetically engineered immunotherapy medication that trains T-cells, or cells used in immune responses, to attack tumor cells. Carter was cancer-free and in remission by March 2016.
Gilliland was the Senior Vice President at Merck Oncology, headquartered in New Jersey, at the time the company created the CAR T-cell drug.
“I have never seen anything like the results we’re seeing. We have patients who have weeks or months to live who have cancer that has not responded to any treatments and we give them this engineered T-cell and we’re seeing 90 percent response rates,” Gilliland said.
To continue advancing the fight against cancer, Gilliland stressed the importance of investing in research. He also said it’s important to educate young children in healthy behaviors, such as reducing obesity and smoking, messages that are especially relevant to Cowlitz County, which has high rates of each of these and other unhealthy behaviors.
“I’ve never walked around saying the cure is around the corner, but that’s what I’m saying now. You can believe that,” Gilliland said Thursday. “We have the opportunity to really kick this out of the park, and I truly believe we will get there with the right kinds of resources and the right types of investments.”