Americans are “more likely to survive a cancer diagnosis today than at any other time in history,” according to the newly released American Association of Cancer Research’s fourth annual Cancer Progress Report.
But despite dramatic advances in anticancer targeted and immunotherapies, austere congressional research appropriations threaten to slow the pace of cancer research—and might even drive promising researchers from the field, claim the report’s authors.
“Congress is faced with a choice,” their report stated. “If it chooses to fund biomedical research at the current rate … patients will undoubtedly be affected.”
An estimated 14.5 million Americans are cancer survivors, according to the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR)’s 2014 Cancer Progress Report.1 Because the number of Americans older than age 65 is expected to double by 2060, the number of patients with cancer will climb dramatically in the coming years.
So will the costs. “Cancer is already among the most costly diseases in the United States,” the report noted, citing an estimated overall cost in 2009 of $216.6 billion in direct costs and lost productivity. “When these costs are compared with the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute budgets for fiscal year 2014, which are just $30 billion and $4.9 billion, respectively, it underscores the inadequacy in federal funding for cancer research that exists today.”
“Since 2009, the funding has eroded $3.5 billion, taking inflation into account,” said AACR President Carlos L. Arteaga, MD, professor of medicine and cancer biology at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, TN.
That situation might even hurt the country’s cancer research capacity, he was quick to note.
“It impacts the currently still very productive investigators who cannot renew their grants,” Dr. Arteaga warned. “But also, it imposes an additional burden in that many young individuals who would be just tremendous cancer investigators, and who have good ideas, are just leaving cancer research or not joining cancer research.”
Those concerns come at a pivotal period in clinical oncology, with important advances in targeted molecular agents and immunotherapies, Dr. Arteaga and coauthors reported.
With immunotherapy, “we’ve seen very interesting and dramatic, sometimes, responses in tumors that have been very lethal in the short term,” Dr. Arteaga said. “We’re just beginning to see the impact of immunotherapy.”
“One of the major things that has happened, has been seeing the effects of immunotherapies in cancers other than melanoma,” added Jeffrey A. Engelman, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Thoracic Cancers at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, MA.
“There were immunotherapies for melanoma but they really didn’t work in a lot of other cancers, like lung cancer. It is a very important moment in the development of this field. It’s not just about melanoma; it’s treating lots of cancers. That’s really become very clear over the past year or so, as well as the newer (molecular) therapies that can overcome the resistance we see to initial therapies. This whole area is growing dramatically.”
Five of the six newly approved anticancer therapeutics in the past year are targeted agents, he and Dr. Arteaga noted.
“There are more drugs approved in this past year than previous years,” Dr. Engelman noted. “The pace of translating laboratory findings into drugs that are improving patients’ lives has accelerated. I think we’re all worried about whether or not we’re going to start to see a reverse of that increasing slope of change, of that increasing progress.”