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Can Science Stop Cancer Before It Starts?

Can a simple blood test tell you if you have cancer or are at high risk of developing cancer – long before any symptoms or signs of disease// appear?

Research happening today at the University of Michigan and other leading cancer centers is bringing us to that point. New genetic markers and proteins are being discovered that can identify early signs of cancer and predict who is most at risk.

But what does this progress mean to the average person who has never been told “You have cancer”? And what barriers do we face in pursuing these new advances?

Virtually every major cancer is far easier to cure when found at an early stage, making early detection crucial. Even more important is finding a way to prevent cancer before it develops.

“Cancer is a biological process that starts in the body years or even decades before a diagnosis is made. The ability to detect that process early or stop it altogether represents our greatest hope for significantly reducing or eliminating the suffering and death due to cancer,” says Max Wicha, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Oncology and director of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Researchers are looking at how drugs, foods and nutrients interact with cells to slow or prevent the growth of cancer, as well as identifying genes and proteins that may be used to detect cancer early or even predict a person’s future risk of cancer. Drugs or nutritional interventions can then be developed to target these genes or markers.

“The key to prevention and early detection is that we must use these methods on people who are healthy, many of whom might never get cancer. This means we must develop methods that are affordable, reliable, safe and tolerable. Significantly reducing cancer incidence and severity is absolutely possible through the successful development and use of chemoprevention and early detection,” says Ellen V. Sigal, Ph.D., chair and founder of Friends of Canc er Research, a non-profit dedicated to addressing barriers and opportunities in cancer research and cancer policy.

The town hall event, which is free and open to the public, will provide an interactive and in-depth look at promising areas in prevention and early detection from an expert panel of our nation's leaders in various fields connected to cancer research. For many of these areas, the hurdle to these advances is not the science but the funding. Funding at the National Cancer Institute – the primary source for most basic cancer research – has been virtually flat since 2003. President Bush’s FY08 budget proposes decreases the NCI’s budget by $11 million.

“Federally supported cancer research is an investment in our nation’s health and leads to fewer people dying from this disease. This message needs to be delivered to our elected officials frequently to get the point across with so many competing priorities facing our nation,” says Marlene Malek, president of Friends of Cancer Research.

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