WASHINGTON — As a crowd of 20,000 looked on, laughing, Donald Trump Jr. on Tuesday mocked his father’s emerging rival Joe Biden for the ambitious pledge he made recently to “cure cancer” if elected president.

“I’m going to cure cancer,” Trump Jr. said contemptuously, throwing his arms above his head. “Wow! Why the hell didn’t you do that over the last 50 years, Joe?”

Once President Trump took the stage at his campaign kickoff rally in Orlando, he made his own pledge: He, too, would cure cancer once and for all.

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“We will come up with the cures to many, many problems,” he said. “Many, many diseases — including cancer.”

But cancer, like health care, is complicated. Discoveries cannot be predicted, research is rarely linear, and scientists often require false starts before they learn how to overcome particular roadblocks in research. The pledges from Biden and Trump, however well-intentioned, experts say, threaten to give the public false hope without accelerating science.

In a 2020 election dominated by health care, Democratic primary candidates have struggled to differentiate themselves. Already, Biden has leaned on his son’s 2015 death from brain cancer and his advocacy surrounding the Obama administration’s 2016 “cancer moonshot” as a means of connecting with voters. Trump’s pursuit of certain childhood cancer initiatives — and his echoing of Biden’s lofty goal — likely indicate that cancer research and care will remain a prominent issue throughout the campaign.

Still, some scientists bristle at putting a timeline on finding a “cure” for anything.

“It’s a great aspirational goal, but cancer is an extremely complicated disease,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, the CEO of the Cancer Research Institute, a nonprofit focused on cancer immunotherapies. “It’s not just one disease. It’s 200-plus diseases.”

Researchers at drug companies and universities across the country are still making fundamental discoveries about how cancer spreads — underscoring just how much remains unknown about the basic biology of the disease. While some futuristic treatments that involve turning immune cells into cancer-killers exist, they work only for select patients.

The result: For some cancers, no treatments exist that can extend a person’s life more than a few years. It is unlikely that reality would change by the end of Trump’s presidency, or a challenger’s first term, in 2024.

The truth is, even the most seasoned scientists are reluctant to predict exactly when cancer might be cured. When Eric Lander, who co-chaired the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama administration, offered up a timetable three years ago, he suggested major advancements would be measured in decades, not years. “It’s not going to be all done in 10 years,’’ he said, “but if we get it done in 40 years, I’m not going to be embarrassed.”

What is useful, advocates say, is simply funding research, including the basic inquiries in cells and animals that lay the foundation for new medicines, and translational studies that show whether a drug candidate actually extends patients’ lives. They also point to getting more people enrolled in clinical trials and advancing diagnostic and prevention strategies as ways to improve cancer care.

Still, researchers say attention from the country’s leaders is always welcome.

Biden’s “focus during his final year as vice president working on the cancer moonshot has had a monumental effect,” said Jon Retzlaff, the chief policy officer at the American Association for Cancer Research. “But curing the more than 200 diseases that we call cancer is not a realistic goal.”

Some advocates want presidential candidates to outline plans beyond additional research funding and promoting scientific collaboration. Fran Visco, the president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, said the status quo has too often resulted in drugs that barely extend a patient’s life — and that still aren’t affordable.

“Just giving more money to people who are going to do what they’re already doing is not going to solve the problem,” Visco said.

By promising to cure cancer, Biden and Trump are echoing a half-century of such vows, dating back to Richard Nixon’s “War on Cancer” in 1971, a year before his reelection campaign. Biden, in declining to run for president in 2016, lamented that he would not become “the president that ended cancer,” just over a year following the death of his son Beau.

On funding and scientific engagement, Biden’s track record differs dramatically from Trump’s. Biden oversaw the Obama administration’s “cancer moonshot” project — an initiative that provided billions of new dollars for cancer research.

Upon leaving office, he founded the Biden Cancer Initiative, a nonprofit aimed at accelerating cancer research and pushing private companies to improve the experience of cancer patients nationwide.

Nixon - cancer act
President Richard Nixon offers a souvenir pen to an attendee after signing the National Cancer Act at the White House in 1971. AP

More recently, researchers celebrated when Trump, in his 2019 State of the Union address, proposed spending another $500 million on pediatric cancer research. Experts said the money would help them pursue specific questions, including how to extend the promise of immunotherapies to pediatric cancers.

But overall, Trump has proposed reducing funding for the National Cancer Institute by $900 million, part of his efforts to cut government-funded scientific research. Congress has broadly ignored these proposals, instead boosting funding for the National Institutes of Health, of which NCI is part.

“For the Trump administration to propose a 12 percent cut for the National Institutes of Health … and then to say let’s go try to win the war on cancer, it’s inconsistent,” said David Arons, the CEO of the National Brain Tumor Society.

Once, Trump falsely claimed that noise from wind turbines causes cancer.

Along with Nixon, former Vice President Al Gore and former President George W. Bush also raised curing cancer during their political careers. As for why candidates make such lofty vows, it may boil down to how widespread and deeply the impact of cancer has been felt.

“It’s a major problem, it’s a major health issue, and it’s a problem that probably touches almost everyone on the planet,” O’Donnell-Tormey said. “And I think it does require a commitment from our government, that this is a priority. People want to hear that this is a priority.”

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  • There’s a company in Maryland named Cytimmune. Their cancer therapy platform uses gold nano-particles conjugated to tumor necrosis factor (TNF).
    This treatment, dubbed CYT-6091, is highly successful in lab tests, killing +90% of tumor cells by disrupting the cells’ blood vessel system WITHOUT damaging nearby healthy cells. Cytimmune has recently conducted a successful Phase I Clinical trial. Phase II is in the works, relative to funding.
    I’ve been following this company for several years, and I believe that CYT-6091 could be saving lives today. FDA needs to step up and fast-track proven cancer-killers like 6091. Why waste more time on big pharma’s ($$$) immunotherapy which could be decades away. CYT-6091 is here today, curing cancer.

  • trump wants to cure cancer? I don’t think he even knows what it is. He is actually the most malignant growth that we have in this country right now.

    But as far as the elusive cure, cancer is hundreds of diseases. And it is a multi-billion dollar industry, with no one paying much attention to prevention–which doesn’t make money. Prevention for the most part has been relegated to screening. And while screening is all well and good when appropriate, it doesn’t prevent anything but merely shows what is already growing in the body–whether a full blown tumor or precursors. But there is no money in real prevention, and that would mean stepping on the toes of so many mega-industries–everyone from the agri-business to pesticide makers to the fast food industry to the oil companies…our healthcare system is focused on treatment and sometimes cure.

    As a nurse and oncology writer, I applaud out researchers and healthcare teams who care for cancer patients, and many struggle with the lack of effective treatments for patients or the fact that their patients can’t afford a treatment that could help them. But the bottom line is that we need to change gears if we are really interested in “curing” cancer, and put some of the big guns into prevention. I don’t believe that will happen anytime soon as too much money is at stake. The bigger problem of course, is that the US healthcare system is a for profit entity, with dramatic inequity depending on ability to pay. So even if there was a “cure,” it would undoubtedly be so high priced that most could not even afford it.

  • I solved the cancer problem years ago. Cancer could be cured by combined gene therapy (CGTC) and prevented by eye drops with dorzolamide. Other approaches with toxic drugs are deliberate fraud or innocent mistakes. Immunotherapy is promising but may lead to cancer.

  • I solved the cancer problem years ago. Cancer could be cured by combined gene therapy (CGTC) and prevented by eye drops with dorzolamide. Other approaches with toxic drugs are deliberate fraud or innocent mistakes. Immunotherapy is promising but may lead to cancer.
    Michael Lerman, MD, PhD.

  • The elusive ‘cure’ may yet come from Big Data and AI. Imagine a network of all treatment centers across the world, linked together with standardized records of genetic codes, interventions and outcomes for millions of patients. A supercomputer crunching data and identifying what’s working…..

  • It’s better for money making purposes NOT to find a cure. Treatments for cancer are very high priced, and very lucrative for big business, from pharma, hospitals, for profit cancer treatment concerns, and hospice businesses. It wouldn’t be as lucrative if people were cured, but if you keep them sick, they’re a crop to be harvested of money.

    Insurance companies would rather send you a suicide pill as your only option if there is a “right to die” law in the state, rather than pay out for cancer chemo. That very scenario played out in California recently.

    It all boils down to greed. Plain old greed.

    The best cancer treatment is not getting cancer in the first place. Avoid carcinogens, do your research, stay as healthy as you can, and pray that the Environment Pollution Agency can be turned around with the next administration to be the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • All election hot air, without the balloon that would make it steerable.
    Pick a number, Donald, your are only the umptieth presidential candidate trying to win with blown-up promises / illusions. Only if you put your money where your mouth is will something as big as cancer find a cure.

  • In order to fight cancers, the first step is to work to control the causes of cancer. Trump’s dismantling of EPA standards is going to do the opposite.

  • Without goals, even our biggest challenges will languish and remain unsolved. Unlike missions to outer space, cancer research is performed in a largely uncoordinated web of hospitals, universities, biotechs, pharmas
    and government agencies. In addition to funding, there is a need for focus and priorities. The Biden/Obama moonshot declaration was an important kickstarter. Without questioning his motives or resolve, Trump’s promise to win the war on cancer may well be his most enlightened pledge to date.

  • As the article states, Cancer is complicated.
    Much like addiction.
    I believe neither will be cured within my lifetime.
    Not comparing the two,
    just saying these are complicated diseases, which is why their cure has eluded us so far…

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