Breakthroughs in targeted therapy and immunotherapy are partly responsible for the recent decline in cancer deaths seen in the United States, according to the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2023.1
The overall rate of cancer death in the US fell by 33% between 1991 and 2020, which translates to 3.8 million lives saved, according to the report. Death rates have decreased for lung cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, female breast cancer, and melanoma.
“These gains have really reflected a whole variety of different advances, but mostly this has been about efforts in basic science,” AACR President Philip D. Greenberg, MD, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said during a presentation about the AACR report.
Dr Greenberg noted that initiatives such as the Human Genome Project and The Cancer Genome Atlas have enabled the creation of targeted therapies, which are “increasingly precise and decreasingly toxic.”
Immunotherapy breakthroughs have also reduced the toxicity of treatments, leading to improved quality of life for patients. “Precision oncology, personalized medicine; it’s about creating drugs and using them to very selectively target the disease and not injure the person,” Dr Greenberg summarized.
The AACR report highlighted several targeted therapies with unique mechanisms of action that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since the early 2000s, including gefitinib in 2003, crizotinib in 2011, and sotorasib in 2021.
All of these therapies were approved to treat lung cancer, and these approvals coincided with declining lung cancer deaths. The decrease in lung cancer deaths per year grew from 0.9% between 1995 and 2005 to nearly 5% between 2014 and 2020.
The report also highlighted more recent FDA approvals. Between August 1, 2022, and July 31, 2023, the FDA approved 14 new cancer therapies and expanded the approved use of 12 therapies to encompass new cancers. The therapies include a range of cell-signaling inhibitors, antibody-drug conjugates, bispecific antibodies, and immune checkpoint inhibitors.
“A decade ago, there was 1 single immune checkpoint inhibitor,” Dr Greenberg pointed out. “Now . . . 11 checkpoint inhibitors have now been approved by the FDA up through 2023. And rather than using it to treat the single disease that it was approved for a decade ago, we now use it to treat 20 diseases.”
Two new imaging agents — pafolacianine and flotufolastat fluorine-18 —were also approved by the FDA between August 1, 2022, and July 31, 2023.
“Of course, despite all this progress, there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done,” Dr Greenberg said. “There are still, even now, structural barriers for lots of people. There’s clearly disproportionate medical care being delivered to medically underserved populations. This includes, of course, racial and ethnic minorities, but it also includes the rural populations, which is not commonly appreciated, but rural populations participate very minimally in cancer trials.”
“Similarly, although precision medicine has really improved outcomes, we need ways of expanding that so that it includes more diseases,” Dr Greenberg added. “Pancreatic cancer, for example, and glioblastoma still have horrible 5-year relative survival rates, and so we need new advances.”
To address some of these challenges, the AACR has launched a new initiative known as the AACR Cancer Centers Alliance.2 The initiative aims to encourage collaboration among US cancer centers and “accelerate the pace of discovery by providing an ongoing mechanism for transferring new knowledge, sharing resources . . ., and driving innovation that impacts cancer science, cancer care delivery, and science and health policy.”2
Dr Greenberg suggested that the future of cancer research is bright. “I really enthusiastically look forward to what can happen,” he said. “I think there’s no reason not to be optimistic. . . . We’re in this time of unparalleled opportunities.”
Disclosures: Dr Greenberg has relationships with Affini-T, Rapt Therapeutics, Elpiscience, Fibrogen, Immunoscape, Metagenomi, Earli, Catalio, and Nextech. No disclosures were provided in relation to the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2023. Some authors of the Cancer Discovery article declared affiliations with biotech, pharmaceutical, and/or device companies. Please see the article for a full list of disclosures.
1. AACR Cancer Progress Report 2023. American Association for Cancer Research. Published September 13, 2023. Accessed September 14, 2023.
2. Arteaga CL, Cleveland JL, Foti M, et al. AACR Cancer Centers Alliance: Fostering collaboration and innovation to advance lifesaving scientific discoveries for patients. Cancer Discov. Published online September 13, 2023. doi:10.1158/2159-8290.CD-23-0988