Google Ventures' approach to 'curing cancer' is over-optimistic and seriously misinformed

Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ managing partner and president, recently made headlines by telling Bloomberg, “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”

And the main way Maris aims to achieve this lofty goal?

Curing cancer, of course.

With these goals in mind, the company has ramped up its investments in health and science companies like Foundation Medicine, which uses genetic data to create tools for diagnosing cancer.

“Twenty years ago, without genomics, you could only treat cancer with a poison,” Maris told Bloomberg. “That’s really different from, ‘We can cure your cancer by reverse-engineering a stem cell.’ You can now legitimately invest in a company that could cure cancer.”

That’s a well-intentioned statement, but it’s also misinformed. (We reached out to Google Ventures to ask for clarification on Maris’ statement, but they declined to comment.)

Cancer isn’t like many genetic diseases, like sickle cell or Huntington’s, in that it’s not linked with a few specific, identifiable genes. Instead it’s the result of a whole bunch of different mutations, tens of hundreds of tiny twists and pinches in our genes. Worst of all, these mutations are constantly changing and evolving, often becoming more and more resistant to our drugs. And genetics, of course, are not the only determinant of cancer — environmental and behavioural factors matter too.

Still, we’ve managed to curb the incidence of many types of cancer in the past few decades, either through behavioural changes (after 50 years of anti-tobacco campaigns in the US, for example, lung cancer rates have plummeted) or vaccines (we can prevent new cases of human papillomavirus, which causes most cervical cancer, and Hepatitis B, which causes the majority of liver cancer). Obama’s recent Precision Medicine Initiative aims to build on these efforts and treat existing cancers more efficiently.

There are even some types of cancer that we can cure, with surgery (in the case of some skin cancers) or a combination of several drugs and treatments (such as with some cases of Hodgkin’s lymphoma or leukemia).

But there are still many types we can’t.

“There will be a sizable portion of cancers we can’t get rid of,” Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute, said at a recent talk at Columbia University. “We’re not going to eliminate cancer as a disease.”


To say each cancer tumour is unique would be an understatement. “Virtually every tumour looks different from every other tumour,” said Varmus. That makes designing drugs to beat them difficult. Many new treatments work only for a tiny subsection of patients, those with a specific sub-type of one particular kind of cancer. These are exciting developments, but they don’t begin to move the needle on treating — not to mention curing — cancer as a whole.

Plus, among the various genes involved in cancer, some are what Varmus calls “drivers,” meaning they have an active role in spreading the disease throughout the body, while others are merely “passengers,” meaning they make only neutral changes to the genome.

Think of trying to design a net for a species of sea creature that constantly changes its size and shape (and also sometimes decides to live on land instead of in water).

No matter how advanced your net, some monsters will still be uncatchable.

As if that wasn’t enough, some of the drugs doctors have been using in recent decades can actually encourage the cancer to develop resistance to them. When cancer cells detect the presence of these “targeted drugs,” they do everything they can to survive, often mutating into forms that can’t be defeated by the drugs.

None of which is to say that doctors and scientists are not making progress. They are. Still, cancer as a whole will probably never completely disappear — and that’s a reality we should be aware of.

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