You’d be forgiven for thinking that we live through dark times. All we hear is of climate catastrophe/crisis/emergency (take your pick), NHS crisis, winter crisis, flood crisis, international crisis, political crisis, and more in that vein. We’re also on about our third “final” decade to save the planet. But no matter what the headlines and Twitter would have you believe, we’ve never had it so good. And the latest news on the cancer front just highlights why we are uniquely privileged amongst all of our forebears to have been born in this age.
A new type of immune cell has been discovered by British scientists which kills most cancers. Not only this, but unlike the immune cells currently used in gene therapy, this cell appears to work for solid tumours, not just leukaemia. And again not only this, but unlike the immune cells currently used in gene therapy, which latch onto molecules that vary widely between different people (thereby reducing the universal effectiveness of the treatment), this new cell attaches onto molecules that do not vary in humans. As such, according to Professor Andrew Sewell, the lead author on the study that discovered this cell, the “finding raises the prospect of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ cancer treatment, a single type of T-cell that could be capable of destroying many different types of cancers across the population. Previously nobody believed this could be possible”. Laboratory studies have shown the cell to kill lung, skin, blood, colon, breast, bone, prostate, ovarian, kidney and cervical cancer. According to Professor Sewell, trials on terminally ill patients could begin as early as November if the treatment passes further laboratory safety testing. And if all of this isn’t enough to make you believe that fortune is smiling down upon those of us currently alive, then consider this: the cell was discovered by accident.
It doesn’t need much elaboration to describe how momentous this is. In 2018, cancer was the biggest cause of death in the UK (accounting for 27% of deaths in 2018, well ahead of the second biggest, dementia, at 12.8%). It was the second biggest cause of death worldwide after cardiovascular disease, accounting for about one in six of all deaths. Arguably it is a harder way to die than cardiovascular disease, slow and painful for the patient, protracted and emotionally draining for patients’ families. The idea that the incidence of death from this benighted disease that has plagued humanity for so long could now be drastically (really drastically) cut down is nothing short of extraordinary. Indeed, especially given the accidental way of finding this, it is almost miraculous. So you’ll forgive me if I say that in spite of all the “doomsters and gloomsters”, the morose Mabels, hang-jawed Hansens and despondent Desmonds who make up the highly vocal modern-day Eeyore fan club, this discovery is indicative of the good fortune that we have to live in this age.
And there are so many other reasons to celebrate our good fortune. Extreme poverty is lower than ever before (for the first time it is below 10% of the world’s population), child mortality is at its lowest ever, famine was virtually unheard of in the last decade, and even heart disease (mentioned above) is in decline. Stats aside, the evidence is there before our eyes of how much better off we are than our ancestors. No longer can we expect to die writhing on our bed bug infested mattresses with our teeth rotting at the grand old age of thirty-five. No longer can we expect a trip to the doctor to result in leaches clamped and sucking all over our skin while some quack twirls a manual drill around our skull. No longer can we expect some animal skin clad thug to sail to our shores for rape and pillage. No longer can we expect our monarchs to inflict forced conversion on us because their mind has been scrambled by some untreatable dodgy disease picked up from some amorous activity…
Of course there is so much more to be done and of course there are questions to be asked about quality of life (such as satisfaction and happiness) that extend further than health and longevity, including interesting questions about whether humans are actually happier (sub-consciously) in times of adversity rather than the comfort and safety we have now. But on so many levels, we are the lucky ones. The age of medicine in which we live is unparalleled throughout history. The state of mankind is at a level unparalleled in human history. We are the fortunate ones born in this unprecedented age. What a time to be alive. And more to the point, thanks to modern medicinal developments, what a time to stay alive.