Powering our progress against cancer

“Let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”  This statement resonated through the Capitol building during President Obama’s final State of the Union address. The call for a “moonshot” to cure cancer, first mentioned by Vice President Joe Biden, has reverberated through the media, inspiring patients, cancer researchers and oncologists, and the public at large. The call to cure the more than 200 diseases that we call cancer in any of our lifetimes is bold to be sure.  In fact, we are already curing some cancers some of the time and we can credibly see a future in which we cure more and more cancers, more of the time. This illustrates the dramatic progress made since President Richard Nixon announced his war on cancer in 1971.

In response to Obama’s speech, Biden called for us to seize this “inflection point” of remarkable progress in our understanding of the etiology, generation, progression and treatment of cancer. The opportunity he points to is real: Our ability to assess the genetic abnormalities of a patient’s tumor allows oncologists to practice precision medicine and get the right treatment to the right patient at the right time; “big data” unlocks the potential for researchers, physician scientists and medical practitioners to learn from every patient’s tumor biology, treatment response, and other relevant characteristics to illuminate the most effective, high-quality treatment options available in real time; and new treatment technologies, such as immunotherapy, are leading cancer care into a new frontier beyond the traditional modalities of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. 

As a catalyst for more progress, Biden has outlined two priorities for his remaining time in office – increasing funding for research (initiated via a $2 billion National Institutes of Health funding increase in the omnibus spending bill), and integrating siloed research and treatment efforts into a coordinated attack against cancer. 

Many in the oncology community have already recognized that the most effective way to advance treatments for cancer is through collaboration. Healthcare providers, patients, patient advocacy organizations, insurers, researchers, and the biopharmaceutical industry have begun undertaking coordinated strategies for providing patients with the most effective, high-quality cancer care possible. As our organizations have helped lead this work, two themes have emerged.

First, the value of research and innovation cannot be underestimated. At the heart of any effort to support innovation, however, must be the common goal to give patients access to life-changing treatment.

Second, achieving this goal requires us to harness the entire healthcare system to accelerate progress against cancer. To do so, we need biomedical research and healthcare delivery systems that reflect cancer’s variability and respond to rapid changes in science and clinical practice. Concrete steps can be taken in four key related areas: 

·         Patient-Centeredness – In this era of personalized medicine, curing cancer will involve the development and optimal use of a range of treatments and treatment combinations for different patients. Ultimately, treatment should be customizable for each patient, and research should deliver care that cancer patients value. This means accelerating patient-centered research and drug development and creating tools for individualized value assessment.

·         Adaptability – Our research and healthcare delivery systems must account for the rapid pace of advancing science and innovative care strategies that make oncology more effective and efficient. This challenge will only increase as we learn more about how individuals respond to treatment, leverage this knowledge through improved electronic health data, and enter an era of truly personalized cancer care. Our regulatory and payment models should incentivize new cancer tests and treatments.

·         Transparency – Collaboration needs to be transparent and must encourage data-sharing in support of innovation in oncology, including preclinical and clinical research data, as well as diagnostic and treatment data. Simultaneously, patient confidentiality and confidential commercial data must be protected. Tools for continuous learning can accelerate our progress against cancer.

·         Efficiency – Innovative and effective treatments need to be available to patients in a timely manner. Personalized medicines and other life-changing treatments should undergo regulatory review as expeditiously as possible, allowing for quick incorporation into practice.

The president’s and vice president’s actions underscore a turning point in the fight against cancer. We are at the cusp of major scientific and treatment advances that can help advance their vision. Doing so will require shared commitment, collaboration, and research and healthcare systems that are fully aligned in support of faster progress. 

As 2016 unfolds, let us all challenge our perceptions of what is possible. Patients will be counting on us more than ever to accelerate the progress that is necessary to ensure that safe and effective treatments are available to them as they confront this terrible disease. 

Abrahams is president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition; Foti is chief executive officer of the American Association for Cancer Research; and Kean is chairman, Strategic Initiatives of Feinstein Kean Healthcare. They are the co-conveners of the Turning the Tide Against Cancer initiative, which works with members of the cancer community to identify policies that sustain medical innovation while addressing the issue of rising healthcare costs.

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