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Fighting Cancer: Don't Let Our Progress Slow

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Imagine hearing one of these frightful words: Malignant. Metastasized. Tumor. Cancer.

More than 1.6 million patients in America are expected to hear those words in the next year, according to recent estimates. There's a good chance that each one of us will know at least one of those patients.

Now, imagine that it's 1990 -- just more than 20 years ago. Cancer mortality rates in the U.S. had not yet begun to decline. Many types of cancer were nearly untreatable. The "c word" felt, to many, like a death sentence.

Thankfully, things have changed considerably, as evidenced at the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, where the halls were abuzz with exciting research. The American Cancer Society reports that cancer death rates declined in the U.S. by 22 percent for men and 14 percent for women between 1990 and 2007. In recent years, we have made previously-unthinkable strides in understanding the underlying mechanisms of many cancers. We have learned how to study the genetic make up of tumors, allowing us to attack some of them in a more targeted manner. And we know now that there's no such thing as "cancer": It is actually hundreds of different disease entities -- diseases that need to be researched, and treated, in a more "individualized" way.

Now, when patients hear that dreadful diagnosis, more and more of them are told: "We can fight this."

This progress is no accident. It's the result of significant ongoing commitment by all members of the research ecosystem -- including biopharmaceutical companies -- to research and development. PhRMA members alone last year invested $49.5 billion in the discovery and development of new medicines. And increased collaboration among companies, academic researchers and government scientists has opened the door to promising work for tomorrow. In fact, according to a report PhRMA released just last week, there are nearly 1,000 potential new medicines currently being studied to treat different cancers.

These medicines in development seek to deliver on our exploding scientific knowledge and the unprecedented promise it holds. But today, we are at a pivotal juncture regarding our ability to embrace these nascent breakthroughs and turn them into real therapies to help tomorrow's cancer patients.

It's no secret that the need to tighten our belts during the recent economic downturn has sent us into an era of cost containment. But we must find ways to both contain health care costs and continue to move cancer knowledge forward. Quite simply, we cannot limit the ability of researchers to innovate. After all, it's innovation that creates the basis for longer-term cost savings.

Medical advances are not easy or inexpensive. The cost to develop an average new medicine exceeds $1 billion and continues to grow. [1] It takes 10 to 15 years and is fraught with failure, from early compounds not creating an expected response all the way down the line to a promising medicine delivering disappointing clinical trial results at the end of its development program. [2]

That's why we need to connect our growing capabilities in science with the need for long-term cost savings in health care. Rather than short-term cost-containment measures, we must find ways to deliver on unprecedented scientific potential and help patients get the medicines they need both now and years from now.

The breakthroughs that we have already made help to illustrate this: By treating a patient initially with a targeted therapy, we avoid the costs associated with a treatment guessing game, where a patient receives a treatment that may not lead to a positive therapeutic response. We can help to avoid complications and associated hospitalizations. And by better treating a patient now, we can hope that we won't have to treat that patient again in the future for the same condition.

It's true that this is a long-term commitment. It's not a solution for next year's budget -- or next year's patients. And it's not a complete solution for all the challenges facing our health care system. But it's an important way that we can improve the future of our health and the future of our economy. In a sector where a new product can take a generation to reach patients, that's just the way we think.

1. J.A. DiMasi, "New Drug Development in U.S. 1963-1999," Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics 69, no. 5 (2001): 286-296; M. Dickson and J.P. Gagnon, "Key Factors in the Rising Cost of New Drug Discovery and Development," Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 3 (May 2004): 417-429; J.A. DiMasi, R.W. Hansen, and H.G. Grabowski, "The Price of Innovation: New Estimates of Drug Development Costs," Journal of Health Economics 22 (2003): 151-185.

2. J.A. DiMasi and H.G. Grabowski, "The Cost of Biopharmaceutical R&D: Is Biotech Different?" Managerial and Decision Economics 28, no. 4-5 (2007): 469-479; J.A. DiMasi, R.W. Hansen, and H.G. Grabowski, "The Price of Innovation: New Estimates of Drug Development Costs," Journal of Health Economics 22 (2003): 151-185.

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