By KATHERINE HOBSON
If you want to take a quick spin through the highlights of progress against the disease over those four decades, the American Society of Clinical Oncology has put together a timeline of major milestones, by decade and type of cancer. (For example, in 1998, the FDA approved Herceptin for women with advanced breast cancer whose disease overproduces a certain protein.)
For an overview of what’s been accomplished since 1971, and what remains to be done, we chatted with Michael Link, president of ASCO and a pediatric oncologist at Stanford University.
“The most important thing to point out is the return on investment in lab research,” he says, noting advances in understanding cancer at the molecular level. “Cancers that look the same under the microscope are different,” he says, with different behaviors, prognoses and treatment options. “If you understand what is making it tick, you can interfere with that machinery with a very specific drug,” he says. (He points to Novartis’ Gleevec as a key example.)
Link also notes that cure rates for some cancers, such as pediatric cancers, testicular cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, have improved. Death rates for all cancers have fallen by 22% for men and 14% for women over the past 40 years, he notes.
Finally, Link points to a greater understanding of the issues of survivorship, including an awareness that harsh treatments can have consequences for health, cognition, everyday function and quality of life years down the line. “We want to cure the patient and leave him as unscathed as possible,” Link says. To that end, therapies have been modified to retain effectiveness without the lingering side effects — such as an end to radiation therapy for some diseases in children.
Going forward, he says progress is needed on certain cancers that have proved tough to crack, including pancreatic and lung cancers, and metastatic colon, prostate and breast cancer. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” Link says, noting that there is some progress on even those difficult diseases, such as new drugs for melanoma.
Early detection — through better screening tests — and prevention are other areas to focus on, he says. “We know how to prevent some cancers and we have not done it,” Link says, noting that eliminating tobacco use would prevent 80% of lung cancers.
Here’s ASCO’s recently released research blueprint for accelerating progress against cancer.