The Current

When will we cure cancer? Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi says 'we are doing it every day'

Cancer is complicated and it's personal, but a leading cancer researcher says those are also the keys to a cure. Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi shares insights from the forefront of a new approach to studying human cancers.
Cancers are diverse, says Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi, so there's a need to learn which drugs to use in each and every sub-type of cancer. (Wikimedia/Kdohert3)

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The future of cancer treatment is highly personalised, and even hopeful, according to a renowned oncologist.

"We will, in the next five years or ten years, gain ground on a daily basis on the disease."

Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe that focusing on how genetically diverse cancer is the key to identifying successful treatment.

The director of the Cancer Center & Cancer Research Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says the key to providing more effective treatment is sequencing the genome of cancer.

"The hope is that we will gain a complete knowledge of cancer and at that point we will be able to sequence the book of life, sequence the genome of cancer."

Building a catalogue of all the different cancer mutations and on a molecular level is a massive undertaking, something Dr. Pandolfi readily acknowledges. 

He says the important thing now, is not to have new drugs, but to discover how existing ones work with each type of cancer. 

"The issue is that cancers are diverse. And so we will need to learn which drugs to use in each and every subtype of cancer." 
We will, in the next five years or 10 years, gain ground on a daily basis on cancer. And this is paving the way to the development of many more drugs, says Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi.

Dr. Pandolfi  says this type of treatment would be used in conjunction with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Other than the scope of the work, another major challenge is the pure cost of personalized cancer medicine. Can a government and health care system realistically sustain a cocktail of drugs for a handful of patients?

It's a question Dr. Pandolfi has pondered and says while the financial feasibility needs to be discussed, there's no reason to slowdown the research.

He points to his own work in helping to identify and treat a rare and often terminal type of leukaemia.

We've come a long way, says Dr. Pandolfi. 

"We discovered that we had a profound lack of knowledge."

Dr. Pandolfi points to a larger shift in how doctors and scientists approach cancer.

"We were at war with cancer, " he says. 

"And I always tend to think that war is established when people don't understand each other."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins.