Putting cancer innovation first

The nation will mark two important cancer milestones this year: the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health and the founding of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which ushered in a medical specialty focusing specifically on cancer care. 

Fast forward 50 years and there is a lot to celebrate.  Cancer deaths dropped 20 percent, two in three Americans now live at least five years after a cancer diagnosis and today, there are 13.7 million cancer survivors.  But the fight is far from over.  Cancer still kills 1,600 Americans daily and costs the country over $200 billion yearly in healthcare costs and lost productivity.  What is more, cancer cases are expected to jump nearly 45 percent by 2030.

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Given these trends, it is imperative medical discovery accelerate. But here is the sobering reality: after years of scientific breakthroughs, continued progress in cancer innovation is not a guarantee.  In fact, research is slowing and the rate of private sector capital and drug development is declining.

Consider these facts.  Government funded research declined close to 20 percent since 2010, investment in biotechnology is slowing, and innovation is being hampered by clinical trials deficiencies, from lack of public awareness to no singular repository of clinical trials listings.

Also impeding progress is the time to develop new cancer treatments. Compared to an average time of two years from discovery to approval for HIV drugs, it takes nine or more years for a new cancer therapy.  Further, because drug development is an uncertain process, a 2010 Tufts University study puts the cost of developing one innovative cancer drug at upwards of $1 billion.

Clearly, these problems impact everyone, which is why hastening the pace of discovery cannot wait. This is the consensus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which on May 1 announced a “21st Century Cures” initiative. Promising to take a comprehensive look at the full arc of biomedical innovation, the Committee asked for “input, answers and feedback” on how to modernize America’s biomedical enterprise.

To provide realistic solutions, the National Patient Advocate Foundation (NPAF) decided to act with likeminded stakeholders.  In collaboration with biomedical researchers, medical innovators, patient advocates and 21st Century thinkers, NPAF conducted a thorough review of the impediments to cancer innovation and identified priorities for moving forward. The result is a blueprint that involves three pillars of innovation:

1.       Expand the science of innovation by reducing logistical obstacles

This will necessitate a more standardized regulatory-approval process, streamlining the logistical hurdles to conducting clinical trials, allowing patients expedited access to innovative therapies before they are approved for general use, and developing a centralized, nationwide hub from which data relating to cancer trials can be accessed and shared to accelerate research results. 

2.       Improve the value of innovation by bolstering funding opportunities

Accelerating discovery requires increased Congressional appropriations for government-funded cancer research, experimentation in research funding, and policies that eliminate uncertainty for innovators and investors, allowing them to pursue high-risk investments in next-generation cancer therapies. It is also important that our nation consider the overall economic value of innovative cancer therapies.  Cost savings from fewer hospitalizations and healthcare expenditures contribute to the patient’s ability to elect innovative treatments. 

3.       Enhance the delivery of innovation through improved communication and coordination between providers and patients

According to recent estimates, only 2-5 percent of adult patients enroll in cancer clinical trials. Rectifying this problem requires improved communication and coordination between providers and patients and regulatory oversight to ensure payers cover clinical trial costs as required by the Affordable Care Act and national Medicare policy.

Accelerating cancer discovery is a crucial step towards saving lives, reducing healthcare costs and achieving economic prosperity. Now is the time to put cancer innovation first.

Davenport-Ennis is founder and chairman of the National Patient Advocate Foundation.

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