Yesterday in Iowa Joe Biden declared, “I’ve worked so hard in my career that, I promise you, if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America: We’re going to cure cancer.”
No one can begrudge Biden for having an all-consuming desire to cure cancer, having lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. The good news is we’ve made remarkable strides in treatment of cancer, from surgery to chemotherapy to immunotherapy to stem-cell transplants to photodynamic therapy. The bad news is there are more than 100 types of cancer, and different treatments have different levels of effectiveness on patients. A blanket cure for all types of cancer is not outside of our reach because we elected the wrong president or aren’t spending enough money on the problem. A blanket cure for all types of cancer is outside of our reach, for now, because this is a darned complicated disease with a lot of varieties and the target is always changing:
Cancer cells grow and divide with extreme rapidity and must endure a certain amount of stress and damage to their DNA. Fast-growing cancers depend on a fine balance between DNA damage and repair, but genetic changes add up over time, and the result is like evolution at warp speed, where growth-promoting mutations lead to even more rapid expansion. This contributes to the heterogeneity discussed above. It also means the cancer you find today may differ from the one you try to treat in the weeks and months to come. With modern sequencing and analysis, it’s now possible to track cancer cell evolution and begin to predict the changes before they occur. Nonetheless, it’s much harder to hit a moving target than a stationary one, and even a highly effective, precisely targeted combination of therapies may not succeed if enough cancer cells survive initial treatment and further evolve.
This is not a promise that a politician can reasonably make.
The demagoguery of Democratic presidential campaigns does not change. Back in October 2004, John Edwards declared at a campaign stop, “If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”
The late Charles Krauthammer — a man who would have every incentive to pursue every potential treatment for paralysis — declared at the time, “In my 25 years in Washington, I have never seen a more loathsome display of demagoguery.”
Edwards’s justification was a false claim that Bush had “banned” stem-cell research, and thus had stood in the way for cures to everything from paralysis to Alzheimer’s to cancer.
This was a brazen lie; Bush had left no restrictions on private research into embryonic stem cells and continued federal funding to support the study of existing stem-cell lines, but barred using federal money for research on stem-cell lines produced by newly destroyed embryos. In 2007, James A. Thomson and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka announced they an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells.
In 2009, Obama lifted the restrictions Bush had put in place. Cures for paralysis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s did not suddenly appear. The furious rhetoric of Kerry and Edwards was wrong; Bush policies were not what stood between suffering Americans and a cure for their diseases.
Earlier this year, Wesley Smith laid out how the promises of embryonic stem-cell research have not yet been kept, while adult stem cells have turned into the “gold standard” that have delivered significant breakthroughs.
Back in 2004, Krauthammer wrote of Edwards:
Politicians have long promised a chicken in every pot. It is part of the game. It is one thing to promise ethanol subsidies here, dairy price controls there. But to exploit the desperate hopes of desperate people with the promise of Christ-like cures is beyond the pale.
How else would we describe a presidential candidate declaring that if elected, he will bring an end to cancer?