The title of this post is my sister Azra's response to this year's Edge.org question: “What should we be worried about?” Here is the rest of what she said:
As a researcher studying cancer for almost four decades, I have witnessed several cycles during which the focus of its investigators has shifted radically to accommodate the prevailing technical or intellectual advances of the time.
In the 1970s it was newly discovered that while the use of single chemotherapeutic drugs produced impressive results in certain cancers, adding more agents could effectively double the response rate; thus the 70s were dedicated to combination chemotherapies. The 80's were dominated by a race to identify mutations in the human homologues of genes that cause cancers in animals (oncogenes).
This was followed in the 1990s by a focus on immune therapies and monoclonal antibodies resulting in some resounding successes in the treatment of lymphomas. Given the technical advances as a result of the Human Genome Project, the spotlight in this decade has now swung towards developing the Cancer Genome Atlas utilizing high throughput genome analysis to catalogue genetic mutations in some of the most common cancers.
The premise here is that by identifying mutations in cancer cells and comparing them to normal cells of the same individual, a better understanding of the malignant process will emerge and new targets for treatment would emerge. This is all very exciting, but if the current trend of sequencing the cancer genome continues unchanged, the role of pathogens in initiating and/or perpetuating cancer may be missed for a long time to come. Here is why.