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Time to stop looking for cures?

Well the summer fun’s over and it’s time to get serious again. I hope you won’t mind me diving straight in on the subject of human mortality and how we make the most of the time we have.

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Stop and Think

This introspection was prompted by a fascinating article I saw his week in Britain’s Daily Telegraph under the headline, “Let’s stop trying to cure cancer” (thanks to John Nosta for kindly pointing me towards it). The article covered the views of an eminent professor at the London Institute of Cancer Research, Mel Greaves. His views can be encapsulated in this quote from the article, “Talking about a cure in terms of elimination is just not very realistic…There are a few cancers that are curable but most are probably not including the common carcinomas in adults. We should be a bit more subtle. We should not try to eliminate the cancer, we should try to hold it in check.”

Explosive stuff, and no doubt controversial – indeed another eminent oncologist, Professor Peter Johnson of Cancer Research UK pointed out that huge progress has been made in survival rates with common cancers such breast and prostate. I can’t comment on the scientific arguments here, but I think what most of us find most challenging about this debate are the philosophical and moral, not to say economic, questions raised. Fundamentally, is it right to spend vast sums of money searching for cures that may never exist, or developing medicines that may extend life by only a few months? Do we have an enshrined human right to expect the medical profession to keep us alive for ever, given that death (and taxes of course) is the only certainty in life?

We’ve already seen massive controversy over the ‘price of a life’. Currently the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in the UK put that price at around £30,000 per Quality Adjusted Life Year, which has resulted in the rejection of a number of newly launched cancer drugs, although in theory it is only a guideline and treatments for certain very rare conditions are approved above this level.

Prevention better than Cure?

Fundamentally, I read Professor Johnson’s point as being that we should re-focus our efforts and resources in other areas – especially prevention and disease management. This has a very appealing logic – if we combine genetic insight with better lifestyles, we can reduce the risks at source, and even if you develop the disease careful management will give you a much better human outcome. From a selfish perspective, I felt encouraged, as I know that mHealth can really support prevention and disease management – I always felt guilty that I wasn’t helping discover cures prior to this.

But perhaps the more important realisation is that this discussion made me face up to my own mortality. For me, that means a little bit of effort to make my time here (and maybe others) as comfortable as possible.

So I hope I’ve not been too heavy-handed in this discussion, but it seems to me in our disposable social-media world today we don’t pause much to reflect on what really matters. You’re very welcome to agree or disagree, or you can always contact me.

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