Brian Druker, one of the leading cancer researchers, believes history could soon repeat itself.
The way people today face cancer, which Druker said was the most feared disease in the United States, is the same way Americans in 1900 faced ailments that today seem relatively innocuous, like infection and diarrhea.
"If you were diagnosed with an infection, that was a fatal disease," Druker said in a lecture at the Simons Research Laboratories Auditorium. "If you listened to doctors in 1900, they were wildly optimistic about what could be done."
Now some researchers like Druker, an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, are optimistic about breakthroughs in cancer therapies in the same way doctors from a century ago saw hope in fighting infections.
"We've developed this new theory of cancer, and it's called the 'gene theory,'" Druker said. "We understand there are abnormalities in our cells, in the genes, that have gone awry.
"But we have more than just hope. Much like 100 years ago, we have new treatments."
Druker rose to prominence with one of these new treatments for his work in clinical trials that led to the development of Gleevec, a drug therapy to help treat chronic myeloid leukemia.
The drug helped several patients recover normal levels of white blood cells in clinical trials.
"Gleevec was really one of the first medications to prove that if you understand what's broken, if you understand what causes the disease, there's hope for a cure," Druker said.
But while Druker is optimistic about where cancer research is headed, he acknowledges that developing treatments can never happen soon enough for a disease that he said is responsible for 25 percent of deaths in the United States.
That's a concern for Penny Hotchkiss, a Lawrence woman who listened to Druker's speech. She was diagnosed in 2003 with acute myeloid leukemia.
She underwent chemotherapy - which Druker likened to using a hammer to try to fix a broken furnace in a home - but relapsed in late 2004.
She's in remission now, but fearful of another relapse.
Nevertheless, Hotchkiss said she shared Druker's optimism.
"I honestly think there is a lot of optimism," Hotchkiss said. "But they need to come quickly."
But a shortage of funding is one of the biggest obstacles for cancer research, Druker said.
"Funding for clinical trials is nowhere where it needs to be," he said. "That is one of the hurdles we face."
He said the amount of money the federal government devotes per year - about $5 billion - to cancer research falls well short of where it should be.
"To me, it should be $50 billion a year," Druker said after his talk.
The lecture was the ninth in the Takeru Higuchi Memorial Lectures and the first since 2004.