The exact outlines of an anti-inflammatory strategy against cancer have yet to be elucidated. Tweaking immune cells that form a defensive barrier against pathogens bears its own risks. “It’s a very complicated issue,” DuBois notes. “If you magically shut down the immune system, you will have problems with opportunistic infections, just like with AIDS.” Use of TNF blockers in other inflammatory disorders has been linked to tuberculosis and other infections, even potentially lymphoma. Moreover, inhibiting the NF-KB pathway can paradoxically promote cancer in some instances. Constraining NF-KB can at times lead to tissue damage and a process of abnormal regeneration of that tissue that can foster cancer.
Still, it seems likely that a new generation of anti-inflammatory agents will join the chemotherapeutic arsenal. Chronic diseases—and their underlying inflammatory conditions—are hallmarks of an aging population. “We’re all a little bit overinflamed,” Pollard observes. Treating the smoldering embers that surround the tumor rather than just mutant cells could make cancer a disease we can live with.