Consider some of the recent great leaps forward in the battle against cancer. Since President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” in 1971, the cancer death rate for American men and women fell 22 percent from 1991 to 2011. That’s about 1.5 million lives saved.
“Precision medicine” allows physicians to take into account each person’s unique genetic makeup and diagnose and treat each patient in his or her own way. Sequencing tumors allows physicians to understand the genetic malfunctions driving a patient’s cancer and to identify which treatments will work best.
A better understanding of genetics has driven the transformative new field of cancer immunotherapy, or “immune-oncology,” which helps a patient’s immune system recognize and destroy malignancies.
One approach focuses on checkpoint inhibitors, which suppress a tumor’s ability to hide itself from the body’s immune system. Drugs in this category include Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo and Merck’s Keytruda. They’ve had unprecedented success in shrinking and even eliminating skin cancer melanomas, and are being tested on other forms of cancer.
Dr. Roy Herbst of the Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center said immunotherapies “can make a difference of epic proportions” in improving outcomes for patients with lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer fatalities worldwide. Other studies have shown that checkpoint inhibitors can shrink tumors in patients with liver cancer, head and neck cancer, and other forms of cancer.
Another potential approach: removing a patient’s T-cells (a type of white blood cell), inserting new genes into them, and re-injecting them into the patient so that the altered cells will multiply and destroy the cancer cells. One study found that these CAR-T drugs improved the survival rate for children with a common type of leukemia from 10-20 percent to 91 percent. Studies have shown they can be used not only against leukemia and related blood cancers, but also against tumors like breast and prostate cancer.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life… People go into continuous, complete remission.”
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Some patients whose cancers have resisted all treatments receive a single infusion of the drugs “and these tumors just melt away. People go into continuous, complete remission,” Gilliland said.
In one recent British-led trial, more than half the patients with advanced melanoma saw their tumors stabilize or shrink. And, since these immunotherapies are also easier on patients’ bodies than chemotherapy treatments and have far fewer negative side effects, some observers believe they could replace chemotherapy as the standard treatment for cancer within the next five years.
Emily Whitehead, who in 2012 became the first child ever to receive an experimental T-cell therapy to treat her acute lymphoblastic leukemia, is still cancer-free and in complete remission. Her parents maintain a Facebook page to keep the world informed of her progress and to encourage other cancer patients.
New technologies are emerging that would allow scientists to “edit” defective disease-causing genes, replacing them with healthy DNA segments. These techs could give rise to medicines that would treat what are now intractable diseases, including not only cancer but sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.
New technologies are emerging that would allow scientists to “edit” defective disease-causing genes, replacing them with healthy DNA segments.
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Despite these breakthroughs, cancer is projected to displace heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans — but only because medical progress against heart disease has advanced at an even more dramatic pace.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a more than 30-percent decline in the death rates for heart disease, stroke and overall cardiovascular diseases from 2000 to 2012, thanks to factors including improved diagnosis, treatment, and scientific discoveries. And any survey of American medical victories over the past two decades must include the discovery of drug therapies that converted HIV and AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable (although often debilitating) disease.
In a decade from now we’ll be able to use 3-D printers to generate human organs using modified stem cells with our own DNA.
In the future, it may even be possible to replace damaged organs — a cancer-ridden pancreas, a diseased heart valve — with artificial ones. The field of regenerative medicine is moving well beyond the joint replacements and organ transplants that have become familiar. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s chief engineer, predicts that a decade from now we’ll be able to use 3-D printers to generate human organs using modified stem cells with our own DNA.
One sobering statistic to consider when thinking about the future of biomedical research into cancer and other afflictions: There are some 10,000 known diseases, but treatments and cures for only 500.
More than two-thirds of diseases are considered rare, affecting 200,000 or fewer patients, and treatments for them go under-researched because pharmaceutical companies typically focus on “blockbuster” drugs that treat more common conditions.
Congress has offered incentives to spur cures for rare diseases through extension of patent exclusivity, tax credits, and speedier clinical trials. The 21st Century Cures Act will further accelerate the process. And, of course, the basic research performed by the National Institutes of Health into the molecular basis of disease may unlock the secrets of both common and uncommon forms of cancer and other diseases.
That’s why it should be cause for national alarm that the National Institutes of Health, which directly supported every major advance in cancer treatment and other medical breakthroughs over the past half century, has suffered a decline in real funding for more than a decade. Only about 4 cents out of every health care dollar in the U.S. goes to medical research and development. The other 96 cents goes to treatment. We’re spending trillions on treating diseases, but only chicken feed on beating diseases.
Only about 4 cents out of every health care dollar in the U.S. goes to medical research and development. The other 96 cents goes to treatment.
But the House’s passage of the 21st Century Cures Act reminds us that the cause of cures is not a partisan program or a win-lose proposition. It’s a winning proposition for everyone, offering gains for personal health, the health care sector, the American economy, and a healthier, longer-lived, and more prosperous world. Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, and Americans from all walks of life should support it. Our lives depend on it.
James P. Pinkerton has been a Fox News contributor since 1996. Before that, he worked as a domestic policy aide in the White House with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.