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Cancer, a life at a time

The fight against cancer proceeds on many fronts at once. And with agonising slowness, progress is being made.

The war on cancer continues, on many fronts all at once. And on some of them, at least, this cruel enemy is in retreat.

A recent report tells us that a London trial of a new prostate cancer drug has been halted for an unusual reason: the early results were so good that doctors decided it would be unethical to keep the medication from the experiment's control group, men who were receiving a placebo. In the US, meanwhile, a former leukaemia patient is cancer-free and thriving, a year after doctors used gene therapy to "programme" his white blood cells to fight his cancer. And the Swiss drug maker Roche says a new "armed antibody" drug, delivering an otherwise-toxic chemotherapy drug straight to cancer cells, will extend the life of women with one form of breast cancer.

Like news from the front in any war, these reports will be subject to amendment, clarification and perhaps even reversal as the situation becomes clearer. That's how science works: form a theory, figure out how to test it, do the test, assess the results, make sure the results can be replicated and finally put what you have learnt to use.

While this slow process goes on, millions continue to die. But meanwhile millions of others live longer than previous cancer patients did.

Ultimately, researchers say, most cancers can be tamed to "chronic disease" status. This is a war the world will want to keep fighting tirelessly.

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