Have Cancer :: The Emperor Meets Polio & The Truth


Cancer Cells, Photo courtesy of pbs.org

This week is an embarrassment of riches of media coverage about cancer.  Last Sunday 60 Minutes aired a segment, “Killing Cancer,” about immunology, specifically reporting on a Phase I clinical trial at Duke University using a modified polio virus in an attempt to eradicate cancer in a handful of terminal brain cancer patients.  Monday night the Ken Burns documentary, Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies, based upon the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Siddhartha Mukherjee, aired the first of three parts on PBS.

And if that wasn’t enough, the The Truth About Cancer producers of the web series The Quest for the Cures, aired a limited-access sequel, The Quest for the Cures…continued, in 11 parts, starting with Monday night’s episode, “The History of Modern Medicine and Cancer”.

The cancer crisis hits primetime.

In the 60 Minutes report, Dr. Matthias Gromeier, a molecular biologist, has been laboring over this polio virus therapy for 25 years.  To convince the FDA that no one would get polio from such a vaccination, they did 7 years of safety studies. The polio virus is re-engineered in such a way not to replicate in normal cells but to kill cancer cells.

Other researchers are experimenting with cancer treatments using viruses including HIV, small pox and measles. But polio was Dr. Gromeier’s choice because, as luck would have it, it seeks out and attaches to a receptor that is found on the surface of the cells that make up nearly every kind of solid tumor. It’s almost as if polio had evolved for the purpose. – http://www.cbsnews.com/news/polio-cancer-treatment-duke-university-60-minutes-scott-pelley/

It appears that the virus starts the killing, but the immune system does the rest of the work.  In one patient, three years after treatment, there is no cancer, just a hole from an earlier surgery.

A victory for modern medicine for sure, albeit a fledgling one.  And this modified virus has the potential to work on any solid tumor (not all cancers are made up of solid tumors).  It seems that all cancer cells evolve in such a way to hide from a host’s (that’s the patient) immune system.  When they infect the tumors with this virus, they remove this protective shield and thus, start a sequence of events that allows the body’s immune system to kill the tumors.

Now the first night of Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies, we learned how modern cancer treatment began, at least according to the producers of the film, and in the first segment, well, let’s just say, it wasn’t a great depiction of how far we’ve come with modern medicine.  But it was honest, as far as it went, avoiding the politics and big business of cancer, and just concentrating on the modern day evolution of cancer treatment.

To loop it back to the 60 Minutes piece, the 17 patients in this clinical trial (I know at least person died because they had the dosage wrong) were all veterans of the cut, poison and burn school of medicine which had, in fairness, given them enough time to participate in what appears to be, at least for some of them, a life saving experiment.  When you have cancer, sometimes that’s all you can hope for. The Quest for the Cures, Continued, says it didn’t have to be that way.

And, are they wrong?  According to the Emperor of All Maladies, we’ve been doing this for over 100 years, pouring billions (maybe trillions over 100 years) of dollars into research, mostly drug research, in the process we’ve changed how we educate healers in this country, and I use that term wisely (and deliberately)  and  yet we haven’t come very far for the average cancer patient.  Back then they excavated entire chest walls to remove breast cancer, today we still do a modified version of that.  We know that radiation causes cancer, so we’ve improved dosages but still don’t make safer imaging available widely.  Did we know Madame Curie died from radiation poisoning?  I didn’t.  I’m sure my radiologist oncologist and his staff was well protected in 2015, but was I?

Which brings me to The Quest for the Cures, Continued.  Kind of full circle really.  Their take on cancer, is that it’s just a symptom of a disease, that just putting the band-aids of cutting, burning and poisoning doesn’t get to the root of the problem.  Can’t argue with that, really.   But the fact that the modified polio virus, a product of the medical industrial complex this group of people is so disdainful of, is really a testament in a way to what they’re saying, that the immune system will do it’s job if treated properly.  The scientists at Duke University readily admit, no, seem delighted by the fact, the virus just starts the process of killing the tumors, it’s the immune system that does the heavy lifting.

So, who’s right?  Should we have kept our environments pristine and pure, let our economies grow in other ways other than dependent on petrochemicals and just turned away from the scourges of illness that have roamed the earth over the years and kept our immune systems running at full capacity and let the law of the jungle prevail?

Some might say so.  But we didn’t.  And I think that train has left the station.  So what are we left with?

I think Siddhartha Mukherjee, author Cancer: Emperor of all Maladies said it best when he said [paraphrased], that cancer is an evolution of our gloriously complex human body, a more complicated and elegant version of ourselves.  And believing that, I think we have come full circle when the best of our medical science is pinning their hopes on using technologies to trigger our bodies into outwitting the “more complicated and elegant version of ourselves” in finally, maybe, a “first do no harm” way of letting our bodies heal themselves.

I do urge everyone to try to catch these programs as cancer affects 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women worldwide.  To remain in fear and ignorant of what’s going on in cancer today is doing a disservice to yourself or anyone you care about who has cancer.

“Killing Cancer,” 60 Minutes, March 29, 2015 

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, PBS, airing 3/30, 3/31, and 4/1 at 9 PM.

The Quest for the Cures…continues, Episode 1 – available for a limited time online, additional episodes will be aired on consecutive days.