No, the other sort of cancer - credit Wellcome Trust

About time to revive this little piece about how wondrous the near future is going to be. For we are in a wondrous age, we really are getting to grips with those problems which remain to plague us. And there’s something very useful about this capitalism and free markets mix we generally use to run our economies. They make these new wonders fascinatingly, gorgeously, cheap over time.

So, ann’a 1, 2, 3 and take it away guys:

The specific reference today is to this story:

A woman with advanced breast cancer has been “cured” by an injection harvested from her own immune system in what scientists have described as an “extremely promising” world first.

Judy Perkins, a 52-year-old mother of two, was given months to live after seven types of chemotherapy failed and she had developed tumours the size of fists in her liver.

She had undergone a mastectomy in 2003 after the cancer was first diagnosed, but it returned in 2013 and spread aggressively.

There is no known cure for breast cancer patients whose disease has spread so widely.

But Ms Perkins, an engineer from Florida, has now been completely cancer free for two years and leads an active life including 40-mile hikes and kayaking.

Cancer is, in one reading, a failure of the immune system to stop those cells doing that multiple dividing. So, if we can get a bit of the immune system – the bit that already recognises something is wrong but isn’t powerful enough to overcome the effect – to buck up and get on with the job then we’ve cracked it.

Using a technique called adoptive cell transfer, scientists removed a tumour from her chest and determined which friendly T cells within it were capable of recognising the harmful cancer cells.

Over eight weeks, the team at the National Cancer Institute harvested the T cells into an army of 82 billion and then injected them back into Ms Perkins, turbocharging her immune system against the cancer.

The method has previously been used with mixed success on patients with bowel, cervical and liver cancers, but this is the first time it has been tried on someone with breast cancer.

Which is exactly what they’ve done. Huzzah.

Now note what this means for costs in the health care system over time. Current cancer treatments are really services. Surgery, chemotherapy is a bit of automation of that but still requires massive bed care etc. We can see this treatment becoming stick a needle in to get a piece of a tumour, breed up the right cells in a vat, inject them and viola. We’ve, certainly to a great extent if not entirely, just automated our cancer treatment. Sure, we can say at current levels of technology that brewing up that vat is expensive and difficult but as with anything else that we do routinely and in volume it’s going to become as cheap as the chips that we’re told cause cancer in the first place.

Equally true that a new treatment like this is going to be surrounded with patents and thus horribly expensive. But they expire at which point that competition bit comes into play. For the thing which the capitalism and markets mix does is make things cheap. Really, really, cheap. Anything that we can manufacture doesn’t remain the preserve of the rich for very long. Ford did it to cars, everyone’s done it to mobile phones in our own lifetimes. In my own adult lifetime a phone cost more than a decent used car and a minute of airtime was about one hour’s minimum wage. No, really, those were prices. Today we worry that some third world peasant might not have reasonable data coverage, so much so that Facebook offers it for free as an anti-poverty measure in many countries.

Manufactured things become cheap enough for all. Rapidly. We’re now on the cusp of manufacturing anti-cancer treatments. They’re going to become hugely cheap. Truly, that future’s so bright….

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“Brewing” is an appropriate analogy, pennicilin went from expensive experimental treatment to cheap commonplace when they recruited a brewer to tell them how to create an efficient production system.


Excellent explanation of the therapy and I agree on what it “means for the industry…over time.” Unfortunately, each medication is unique and has a “market” of one person, so some of these treatments cost a million dollars. Some therapies involve not just determining which T cells are effective, but modifying some of the body’s cells to be more effective. This cost will come down, just as the cure for Hepatitis C did, but the risk is Congressional hearings (as there were for that $86,400 regimen) allowing legislators to squeal that the cost is too high for another miracle that, ten… Read more »