In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama introduced a new initiative to boost research toward finding a cure for cancer. That announcement comes at the dawn of a new era in cancer research.
At Johns Hopkins University, for example, scientists at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Research Center are making breakthroughs in the field.
"I think some of the treatments that we have developed over the last half century or so are really starting to pay off and, honestly, [it] seems limitless as to what may pay off in the future," said Dr. William Nelson, the center’s director.
Many of today's successes are due to decades-long advancements in the field of genetics that have offered a new understanding of the biology and pathology of the disease.
"We understand the genome so much better now,” said Dr. Elizabeth Platz of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Research Center. “So there are discoveries constantly about which points in our genetic makeup are related to risks in certain cancers."
This knowledge is giving doctors the tools to fine-tune treatments and individualize medical protocols.
"It's really been in the last decade or so that we've been able to use technologies to ask, ‘What are all the defective genes in any individual's cancer,’ and can we use that information to plot a treatment likely to be effective for that person. And every day that's more and more possible," Nelson said.
Despite the optimism, many of these new therapies are in the experimental stage, or applied in specialized clinics in developed countries. For much of the developing world, these advancements are still out of reach, and cancer remains a daunting public health challenge.
The World Health Organization says Africa, Asia, and Central and South America account for 70 percent of the world's cancer deaths.
But the tide is turning, and researchers hope one day there will be cures for all cancers in all patients.