The Powerful Impact of Cancer Research

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By Michelle Le Beau, PhD

There is no question that cancer survival rates are getting better.

The most recent national statistics show a decline in death rates for the four most common cancers for men and women, continuing a positive trend that has been occurring for the past decade.

With 14 million cancer survivors alive today, we are on the right path.

This month, we have been celebrating National Cancer Research Month to recognize the role of research in the progress we have witnessed since President Nixon declared the war on cancer in 1971.

Before we talk about research, we should mention how public policy influences cancer death rates.

For example, efforts around smoking cessation have had a significant impact on reducing the disease burden from tobacco. Between 1965 and 2004, cigarette smoking among adults 18 years of age and older declined by half from 42% to 21%.

The next area of major focus will be aimed at another lifestyle risk factor: obesity.

In the years ahead, the promotion of a healthy diet and increased activity to prevent or delay cancer will become an increasingly important message to spread to our population.

When thinking about research and its relationship to advances in cancer care, it’s important to realize that it usually takes decades of research building upon initial discoveries to realize actual benefit to patients. Progress is made in small increments.

Curing cancer is a marathon–– not a sprint. Many important clinical advances have their roots in the basic science laboratory. One of the greatest success stories is childhood cancer.

Because of major treatment advances brought about by clinical trials, more than 80% of children with cancer now survive five years or more.

During the past few decades, we have entered an era of personalized medicine, whereby patients with cancer are treated based on the molecular characteristics of their tumor, rather than the anatomic site of tumor origin.

This paradigm shift happened because of the identification of genetic mutations that influence tumor behavior, and our increasing ability to design appropriate targeted therapies.

For instance, the development of a small molecule inhibitor crizotinib (trade name Xalkori) offers patients with advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer an effective treatment. This drug was developed based on the research finding that a certain enzyme, named ALK, was mutated in a subset of nonsmokers with lung cancer.

This and other promising personalized treatments are providing patients with new options; however, low levels of funding threaten to stymie progress in cancer research.

There is still a lot of work to do, and progress to be made in many areas.

Now is not the time to let up. It is the time to capitalize on the understanding we have gained about the complexity and heterogeneity of cancer to improve the outcome and quality-of-life of those who face a cancer diagnosis.

Federal budget cuts mean that a lot of promising ideas will never come to fruition, investigators will have to scale back on what they are already doing, breakthroughs won’t happen, and patients will lose access to clinical trials.

We implore everyone to urge Congress to increase­­––not cut––funding for cancer research and prevention programs. The millions of families who face cancer every day are counting on it. Please visit http://www.acscan.org/takeaction to send a message to your federal legislators.

Michelle Le Beau, PhD, is Director of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center

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