On September 17, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) presented highlights of its 2013 Cancer Progress Report1 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. AACR Chief Executive Officer Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), opened the program with a double-edged message, first citing the breakthroughs in science and medicine that have produced increasingly better cancer outcomes, then warning that continued scientific progress was in peril due to serious cutbacks in government funding.
“Since 2003, the budgets for the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and National Cancer Institute [NCI] have been steadily shrinking. Sequestration has recently forced the NIH to absorb a direct budget cut of $1.6 billion. This current fiscal course is simply unacceptable,” said Dr. Foti.
Next, AACR President Charles L. Sawyers, MD, expounded on the clinical virtues of new, more-targeted therapies and the move toward what he called “precision medicine.” He quantified the advances by noting that in 1971, 1 in 69 Americans was a cancer survivor. Today, 1 in 23 Americans is a cancer survivor.
“We can look toward the future with great optimism,” said Dr. Sawyers. “One promising statistic is that there are now 39 U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA]-approved therapies that target specific molecules in cancer; only 17 such therapies were available 5 years ago, and a mere 5 were on the market 10 years ago. This drug pipeline success demonstrates the return on investment from scientific research. Unfortunately, we are in a funding crisis that needs to be turned around if we are to continue making progress in cancer treatment and prevention.”
Echoing Drs. Foti and Sawyers’ concerns over budget cuts that directly impact scientific research in cancer, the AACR delivered a “call to action,” urging Congress to designate the NIH and NCI as national priorities by providing annual budget increases at least comparable to the biomedical inflation rate, and to protect the NIH and NCI from another year of the damaging budget cuts from sequestration, and reinstate the $1.6 billion in funding that the NIH lost in March 2013.
The report showcases the compelling stories of nine individuals who have battled, or are still battling, cancer. The program was interspersed with talks by several of these cancer survivors, and others were featured in a video at the start of the event (www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGYjFaCEOfl). One survivor featured in the video, Carol Weinbrom, who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2001, amplified the AACR’s passionate call to arms about the need for increased research funding.
“I am currently receiving an investigational drug through a phase Ib clinical trial. It is one of very few options left to me. The reality is that I am at the end of approved treatments. I rely on investigational drugs and the researchers who are identifying new ones. To ensure that drugs are constantly entering the pipeline, researchers need a dependable source of funding,” said Ms. Weinbrom.
Dr. Sawyers concluded his presentation with an informative update on advances made in targeted therapies. Then he introduced Drew Pardoll, MD, PhD, Director, Cancer Immunology Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, who gave a comprehensive overview of the rapidly emerging field of cancer immunotherapy, a special feature of this year’s report.
“After years of research in this field, we began to learn that tumors resisted being eliminated by the patient’s immune system by co-opting inhibitory pathways, thus putting the brakes on the immune response,” said Dr. Pardoll, adding, “In fact, the tumors could highly upregulate molecules that would stop a T cell, for example, in its tracks and protect the cancer.”
Dr. Pardoll highlighted exciting work in adoptive immunotherapy, which harnesses the power of the immune system’s T-cells. There are currently no FDA-approved adoptive immunotherapies, but Dr. Pardoll pointed out that a number of leukemia patients on clinical trials using adoptive immunotherapy have been in complete remission after other treatments have failed or led to relapse.
“As basic research continues to increase our understanding of how T cells function and how these functions can be exploited, new adoptive immunotherapies are likely to emerge in the near future,” said Dr. Pardoll.
Dr. Pardoll captured the essence of the special feature on immunotherapy from the report with his concluding statement:
I have such confidence in the potential of immunotherapy that I think by 2015 it will be looked at historically as the time that immunotherapy became the fifth pillar of cancer treatment. There are barriers to this becoming a reality, but they are not scientific. They are regulatory and financial. To use a military analogy, we have the weapons but not the funds to test or manufacture them quickly enough.■
Disclosure: Dr. Sawyers is on the Board of Directors of Novartis. Dr. Foti reported no potential conflict of interest.