Washington, 21 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Advances in the treatment of cancer dominated the medical news this week as thousands of cancer specialists met in the United States for an annual conference. In addition, the United Nations reported that medical tools are available to eradicate seven diseases that plague the developing world.
Encouraging News From Cancer Specialists
No responsible scientist is claiming that a cure for cancer is within medicine's reach yet, but thousands of cancer specialists from around the world heard many encouraging reports this week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast state of California.
The Society's new president, Dr. Allen Lichter, told Reuters that he believes deaths from cancer could be cut in half in the next 30 years as drugs used to combat the disease improve. However, he added that a cure for cancer is still just a dream.
In North America, Europe -- including Eastern and Central Europe -- and in most of the countries in the former Soviet Union, cancer is the second leading cause of death in men and women after heart disease.
Lichter and other experts said the news about cancer treatment is particularly encouraging for specialists treating the victims of breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer is almost exclusively a male affliction; women are the victims of breast cancer. One of the new studies presented in Los Angeles reports that women have a better chance of surviving if a drug called Taxol is added to their treatment before the cancer spreads. Dr. Craig Henderson of the University of California said Taxol was the first drug that improved the effectiveness of the chemotherapy on patients whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Chemotherapy uses powerful medications to kill cancerous cells. Taxol is a recognized chemotherapy agent that is made from compounds found in the bark of a tree called yew that grows mainly on the U.S. Pacific coast. Doctors in California studied more than 3,000 breast cancer patients and compared the use of standard chemotherapy with and without the addition of Taxol to the treatment.
All of the women in the study had early stage breast cancer, meaning they could have been treated with a mastectomy -- removal of the breast -- or removing the tumor in a procedure known as lumpectomy, coupled with radiation therapy. Dr. Henderson said the addition of Taxol to standard chemotherapy reduced the re-occurrence of breast cancer by 22 percent and decreased the number of deaths by 26 percent.
Other developments in the treatment of breast cancer included:
-- A report that the drug Herceptin is the first proven cancer medicine to work by attacking the genetic defects that cause the disease. Given to women with advanced breast cancer, it increases survival an average of three months. Experts hope for more dramatic effects when it's given in earlier stages of the disease.
-- A study that indicated that the drug Raloxifene, a medicine developed for the bone disease osteoporosis, appears to cut older women's risk of breast cancer by about two-thirds without raising the hazard of uterine cancer.
Prostate Cancer Screening Could Save Thousands of Lives
The California conference also presented a study by a Canadian research team which said a simple test to detect the presence of prostate cancer could save the lives of thousands of men each year. Prostate cancer is second to lung cancer as the leading cause of death through cancer in the United States. A recent report by the World Health Organization warned that prostate cancer was increasing in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
However, conclusions published after an eight-year study by physicians in the Canadian province of Quebec showed that early prostate cancer screening can reduce deaths from the disease by 69 percent. The study is the first to follow the progress of a randomly chosen group of men who underwent screening, comparing them to men who were not screened.
The rate of death among those who were not screened was 48.7 deaths per 100,000, compared to 15 deaths per 100,000 in those who were screened. Cancer specialists say prostate cancer can be diagnosed in almost 100 percent of cases and patients can survive if the disease is detected before it starts spreading through the body. The Canadian team recommended that screening begin in men at age 50. An examination called the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test and a digital rectal examination should be used.
The exact reason men develop prostate cancer is not known. Researchers believe that a diet that is high in animal fats and a lack of physical activity may contribute to the development of the disease, which predominantly strikes men over 50.
WHO Says Seven Diseases Could Be Eradicated
The World Health Organization says seven deadly and crippling diseases could be eradicated within a generation if vaccine, drug distribution and education efforts are increased.
The diseases, mostly found in developing nations, are leprosy, filariasis, polio, guinea worm disease, measles, river blindness and Chagas disease.
In a statement, the WHO said the means are at hand either to eliminate the diseases, which disable millions of people every year and kill many more, or to bring them down to controllable levels.
For example, the agency said that filariasis, a parasitic infection that causes the gross swelling of limbs and genitals known as elephantiasis, could be eliminated thanks in part to the free donation of one of the drugs that treats it by makers SmithKline Beecham. The disease, which also causes kidney and lymph damage, costs India alone $1.5 billion a year and affects 120 million people in 73 countries. But it costs just five to ten cents a person to treat.
WHO said there had been "spectacular" progress toward eliminating Guinea worm disease. WHO said, "the annual number of cases has fallen worldwide from an estimated 10 to 15 million in the late 1970s to 77,863 in 1997." Guinea worm disease is caused by a parasitic roundworm. It affects people living in sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen. People are infected by drinking the parasite's larvae in water.
The worms work their way through the body, emerging through the skin, usually the feet, causing pain, fever and nausea. There are no drugs to treat Guinea worm disease but providing clean drinking water and educating people about how to make water safe can prevent infection. WHO estimates it would cost $40 million to wipe out the disease.
The WHO said a global vaccination campaign now under way may eliminate polio by the year 2000. However, the agency said 10 million to 20 million people are paralyzed by the virus and $1 billion is still needed to complete the vaccination campaign.