World Cancer Day: 5 Diseases the U.S. Could Eradicate in the 21st Century

As a producer working in Boston, I interview a lot of scientists and people in the medical field about their research. A common occurrence seems to unify each lab assistant, Ph.D student, or researcher’s moment of discovery: chance. Just as “Berlin patient” Timothy Ray Brown was cured of HIV by a chance HIV-resistant gene match after a bone marrow stem cell transplant, much of scientific discovery occurs serendipitously. 

But to cave against the odds would be to discount all the Nobel laureates, epidemiologists, and researchers who dedicate their lives studying disease and aspiring for cures. The growth of personalized genomics, stem cell research, and other contentious methodologies provide hope that the following 5 diseases might be eradicated in the 21st century.

1. Alzheimer’s disease

In March 2012, the Obama administration presented a national plan to fight the ailing neurodegenerative disease that affects some 5.4 million Americans. The same year, I interviewed Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, whose lab discovered the enzyme responsible for inhibiting the creation of new memories. While Tsai admitted that it would still take 10 years to develop drugs that they could test on humans (they tested successful drug targeting on rats in 2012), she anticipated progress in deploying an enzyme-inhibiting drug called HDAC2.

2. Autoimmune Disease (HIV/AIDS)

Last year, researchers at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., reported that two AIDS patients in Boston were successfully treated with the same bone barrow transplant procedure as the Berlin patient’s. While he expressed that reaching a definitive cure is still a long way down the road, Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of Infectious Disease, encouraged “more study of stem cell transplants in HIV patients” to make further strides.

3. Cancer

Ralph Steiman’s discovery, worthy of a posthumous Nobel prize, lends credence to curing cancer with the development of immunotherapy, which concentrates on boosting the immune system with personalized drugs or antigens to fight off malignancies like tumors. Coupled with personalized genomics, or analyzing one’s genome sequence to extract a tailored remedy, based off of genetic information, a cure for cancer has already become a reality with survival rates for breast cancer on the rise

4. Pandemics and infectious diseases

“Early detection, early response” is epidemiologist Larry Brilliant’s mantra, and one that he wants to apply to curing all infectious diseases. In his 2006 TED Talk, Brilliant talks about how early detection and response was responsible for stopping the small pox in India and avian flu in China. Brilliant believes that by building GPHIN, a Global Public Health Intelligence Network that would crawl the web for word-of-mouth signs of pandemics on the rise, agencies like the WHO or the CDC could devise better containment response system that would prevent something like polio or H1N1 from spreading.

5. Diabetes

In an interview with Huffington Post diabetes columnist Riva Greenberg, Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) Head Dr. Camillo Ricordi talks about the “Automated Method,” a procedure that takes healthy islet cells from a donor pancreas and transplants them into a patient, whose insulin levels have then successfully stabilized. Ricordi also alludes to the success of stem cell research and tissue reprogramming as a prospective cure, especially to pancreatic cancer, which killed Steve Jobs in 2011. While Ricordi works with the determination as if diabetes (at least Type-1) will be cured “within the next three years,” for some, like, Mike Adams, the cure might be around the corner, and in our own hands.