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For decades, cancer treatments have traditionally included just three options: surgery, radiation and chemotherapy—or often, some combination of the three. Now, targeted therapies are changing these long-held approaches, offering the promise of more personalized treatment pathways. New research indicates these medicines are beginning to positively impact our fight with certain cancers.

 

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study showing population-level mortality from non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in the United States fell sharply from 2013 to 2016, even decreasing 6.3% annually among men. Moreover, the percent of survival after diagnosis improved substantially, increasing from 26% among men diagnosed with NSCLC in 2001 to 35% among those diagnosed in 2014. Importantly, improvements in survival were found across all races and ethnic groups and similar patterns were found among women with NSCLC.

 

The researchers who authored the study concluded that “a reduction in incidence along with treatment advances — particularly approvals for and use of targeted therapies — is likely to explain the reduction in mortality observed during this period.”

 

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A growing reservoir of targeted therapies

 

As an old refrain within oncology goes, “once you’ve learned about one patient’s cancer, you’ve learned about exactly one patient’s cancer.” In other words, although commonalities exist, the genomic and environmental drivers of a person’s disease are specific to that person. It’s also worth noting that cancer isn’t just one disease, but rather more than 200 diseases that we collectively call cancer.

 

In recent years, our understanding of genetics has advanced far enough to allow scientists to approach cancer from a genomic standpoint, meaning we can learn what makes each tumor—and each patient—unique.

 

For example, some lung cancers are driven by a genetic mutation that causes a cell to produce an excess of EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor). EGFR activation encourage cell division and growth, and an excess of GFR signaling can cause cells to divide uncontrollably. Others, such as ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) fusion oncogenes can disrupt cellular division and growth. In many cases, these mutations can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and ultimately, cancer.

 

In the last decade, biopharmaceutical researchers have improved our ability to detect and describe an individual patient’s cancer and determine which genetic variants might be driving the disease and in turn could be used to guide treatment. That information has informed the development of medicines that go beyond one-size-fits-all treatments to targeting specific cancers in specific people.

 

This field, known as personalized medicine, has promising implications for our ability to fight cancer, including rare or difficult-to-treat cancers.

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The future of personalized medicine

 

The medical community is still a long way from tailoring every therapy to each specific patient, but we are getting closer every day. The role of personalized medicine is growing with one in four medicines granted FDA approval in the last 6 years classified as a personalized medicine, compared with just 5% in 2005. In cancer, 73% of medicines in the pipeline have the potential to be personalized medicines with that number expected to increase as our ability to respond to cancer continues to improve. Now, when a person is diagnosed with certain cancers, such as lung, it is increasingly common that his or her pathologist will test the tumor to understand which genomic breakdown led to disease. This not only helps identify the most appropriate treatment for each patient but may also generate real world data that biopharmaceutical researchers may leverage to further refine or develop new cancer medicines. Personalized medicine is also growing in other disease areas as well, including as treatment options for many rare conditions.

 

Looking forward, these medicines also offer to make the health care system more efficient, getting the right treatment to the right patient at the right time, reducing unnecessary treatments and improving health outcomes. Biopharmaceutical researchers have made tremendous progress in the field of personalized medicine, but there is still a long road ahead. Now is not the time to pursue policies that jeopardize medical innovation and threaten the hope of patients who need better treatments and cures. Learn more about the growing reservoir of targeted therapies.