Between 2016 and 2017, the United States experienced the largest ever single-year drop in overall cancer mortality rate. Moreover, since peaking in 1991, the death rate associated with cancer declined by 29%, which translates to 2.9 million fewer cancer deaths.
Although cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States, we have made tremendous progress in tackling this disease. Along with public health campaigns to reduce harmful behaviors like smoking, as well as improved approaches to screening, new medicines allow us to treat and in some cases cure cancer in an increasingly targeted way. As our understanding of disease biology continues to grow, the prognosis has never been more promising for patients with cancer. Leading the charge, here are four groundbreaking innovations helping address the cancer mortality rate and revolutionize our battle with this disease.
Ordinarily, if a cell experiences a genetic mutation that could lead to uncontrolled growth, it is quickly destroyed by our immune system. However, sometimes a group of cancerous cells trick the body to avoid detection, allowing them to grow unrestricted and ultimately become a tumor. Other times, cancer can weaken a person’s immune system to a point where the body cannot effectively fight the disease on its own.
Immunotherapies counteract these changes by reversing a tumor’s ability to avoid detection or strengthening the existing immune system response, which helps the body’s natural defenses to find and fight the disease. Since their discovery, immunotherapies have contributed to dramatic gains in survival among various lung, skin and prostate cancers, among others. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are an example of one type of immunotherapy.
Cell & Gene Therapies
One of the most exciting developments in the last few years, cell and gene therapies work by modifying genetic material to help fight disease. Specifically, gene therapy uses genetic material, to manipulate a patient’s genes (for example, to fix a gene mutation that is causing disease), while cell therapy involves the infusion or transplantation of whole cells into a patient. A 2020 report found there are 173 investigational cell and gene therapies currently in clinical development for the treatment of cancer.
One example of how cell and gene therapies are assisting in the fight against cancer is CAR-T, which provides a method of collecting a sample of white blood cells, genetically altering them to seek out and attack certain cancer cells, and injecting them back in the body to act as “smart bombs” that selectively target a patient’s cancer. In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first two CAR-T therapies for certain types of blood cancers.
Many cancers are driven by genetic abnormalities that cause cells to divide uncontrollably. As we grow our understanding of disease biology, we’re finding these abnormalities are incredibly diverse, even among cancers that were previously thought to be similar, such as non-small cell lung cancer. In other words, what causes one person’s cancer may be entirely different than what causes cancer in someone else, regardless of how they appear on the surface.
As we increase our understanding of these genetic drivers, researchers have developed medicines that better address cancer’s distinct, underlying causes, which can lead to more targeted treatment and help reduce unwanted side effects. In December 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first of these treatments, known as “tumor-agnostic therapies,” and a similar treatment was approved in August 2019. These types of treatments are exciting because they can be used to treat multiple types of cancer that share a common genetic or molecular cause.
Dozens of environmental factors can contribute to the development of cancer, including certain diseases like human papillomavirus (HPV), which has been linked to the development of cervical cancer. Vaccines that protect against diseases like HPV have been a boon to our fight against cancer, by effectively reducing the environmental risk.
Other types of vaccines have helped address cancer once it has formed in the body by strengthening the immune system response. Building on the success of the first cancer vaccine in 2010 (approved for metastatic prostate cancer), scientists are opening new avenues for immunotherapy, or immuno-oncology, where vaccines are showing promise in boosting the immune system or helping the immune system recognize cancer cells. Some of these potential vaccines to treat cancer that are showing early promise can be individualized to each patient.
It will take a multifaceted approach to continue lowering the cancer mortality rate.
Cancer is a complex disease and it will take an equally complex solution. Innovative medicines have played a huge role in our progress, but we still have a long way to go. Each day, America’s biopharmaceutical researchers rise to the challenge and remain dedicated to the search for new treatments.
As revolutionary treatments become available, important conversations are also happening to help ensure Americans have affordable access to their medicines. As policymakers debate changes to the health care system, we must advocate for proposals that not only help people access their medicines but also support the development of the next generation of treatments and cures that have the potential to save lives. Tell Washington to protect innovation in cancer treatment today.
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