Recently the odious fungoid that infests 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was raving about his imaginary “war against cancer.” Under ordinary circumstances I assume that every pronouncement that emanates from that malignant wretch is a lie. But when it comes to wars on cancer, I have a special level of scorn.
Since the 1960s America has been bombarded with headlines on how the titanic energies of the federal government and the medical science infrastructure would finally defeat cancer “within twenty years.” Now this twenty-year estimate is very similar to the one that has been promising us nuclear fusion energy “within fifty years. We’re currently on the eightieth year of that guesstimate.
The idea that a moron like Joe Biden is going to solve a biological mystery like curing all cancers is truly absurd. Sure, he’s only talking about funding a research initiative but the scope of what he’s proposing to do dwarfs the resources he’s talking about by a factor of a million to one.
The mistake that people make when they compare biology to something like technology or economics is thinking that there is a linear relation between what you know and what you don’t know. Everyone was told that once we had decoded the human genome everything else in human biology would be a matter of reverse engineering solutions to every disease and problem. Boy was that stupid. The genome gives us the code for figuring out the peptide sequence in all the proteins that the body uses. But it turns out that understanding how these proteins interact with all the other chemical substances in the body is so complicated that all knowing the compositions of the proteins does is mock us with the actual complexity of our cells.
Even the shape of these protein molecules is a mystery that has to be painstakingly determined with X-ray crystallography and other complicated and exacting techniques. And even then, we don’t know the shape the molecule assumes in the specialized environment when other molecules are associated during various interactions. Recently artificial intelligence has been tasked with automating the calculation of the shapes of all the proteins known to man. And this is surely a boon. The countless man-hours saved by the machine cataloguing the shape of two hundred million proteins is stunning. But as is freely admitted by the AI’s creators, these shape estimates are extremely questionable. They only form the basis for a more through examination of the protein. Maybe they really only help to narrow a research effort down from an even larger problem down to just an enormous one.
The metabolic pathways associated with the human immune system is one of those areas where protein shape is critical. An enormous amount of effort has been expended in trying to understand how the human body differentiates between pathogens and self when it tries to protect from viruses, bacteria and other organisms. When the immune system becomes too active, we end up with auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s Disease where the body attacks its own cells. And yet that same immune system is also charged with attacking cancer cells. Tumor necrosis factors exist in the body for this purpose. These delicate balances and how they fail is the subject of endless research.
Practical results have been made. Antibodies have been manufactured with the ability to target the exact cancer cells that a patient is producing. There have been cures. But failure is the rule, success the exception. Once again, what we know is still an infinitesimal part of what needs to be learned.
It can be hoped that AI will eventually be an accelerant for the research being done. But I suspect that what we are looking at is a multi-generational effort that will involve incremental progress. In fact, it’s possible that fundamental biological research not even aimed at cancer will provide the stepping stones that one day will allow truly effective cancer treatment.
One thing I can guarantee is that Joe Biden will never be thought to have done anything meaningful to help advance cancer research. In fact, I’ll go one better. Joe Biden will never be thought to have done anything meaningful to help anyone but himself.