The Private Sector Steps up the War On Cancer

06/29/2017 03:03 pm ET

The cancer war-fighting community’s White House general may be gone, but Joe Biden’s exit hasn’t slowed down research and innovation in private industry and academic centers around the nation.

Don’t get me wrong. We miss the White House bully pulpit. But if the mood earlier this month at the world’s most prestigious gathering of lung and other cancer specialists is an indicator of what’s in store for the future – then we’re in good shape.

Thousands of the brightest and most committed minds in science, medical research, health care and even big data descended on Chicago for this year’s convention of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, better known as ASCO.

In the hallways, on panel discussions, or in published studies and press reports, the common narrative I heard about fighting lung and other cancers was of success, hope, and even in a guarded way, what we call in our line of business, the “C” word – or cure. We still have a ways to go on that front, and we’ll never prevent cancer entirely, at least not in my lifetime. But we’re making remarkable advances across the board. More drugs have been approved for lung cancer in the last 15 months then have been approved in the last three decades. Indeed, more people are surviving the most common forms of cancer as deaths are trending downward for men and women, according to a recent study by multiple institutions, including the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

ASCO president, Daniel Hayes, M.D., struck an effusive note when he talked about Carl June, M.D., who is making breakthrough contributions at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Parker Cancer Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco. June was this year’s recipient of oncology’s highest honor, the Karnofsky Award. “It’s pretty clear, he is curing certain leukemias,” Hayes said. “This is a big wow.”

At an ASCO presentation sponsored by Guardant Health, my friend Pasi A. Janne, a medical doctor and renowned research PhD, and I discussed some of the issues confronting the cancer research community. Pasi is a leading researcher doing pioneering work in the treatment of lung cancer, immunotherapy and precision medicine at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where he is the director, Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology. He’s also a professor of Medicine at Harvard and is science director of the university’s Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science.

We discussed progress toward a cure; the key role of the patient in research; the difficulty of patients getting to clinical trials; and the new patient registry we began at the Addario Lung Cancer Foundation that is run by patients! You can see the full interview here.

“I rarely saw patients with metastatic lung cancer that lived longer than a year,” Pasi said. “Now it is common to live five, six, seven years. They wouldn’t be there today if we didn’t know what their genotype was because we’ve been able to match the right therapies with the right patients.”

Unfortunately, this is not for everyone, Pasi said. In fact, it’s estimated that lung cancer will kill 150,000 people this year in the U.S. alone. “But I think this gives us hope that it is possible. Now most of the time we’re still talking about giving patients one drug at a time. If we think about other diseases, other cancers, we can cure with combination therapy, (like) testicular cancers, Hodgkin Lymphoma, these are all treated with combination therapy. Yet for many of advanced lung cancers we are routinely doing the single therapy approach. So once we’re able to get to the combination approach, years will become a common finding and hopefully will ultimately get to the cure.”

I have been a lung cancer survivor and advocate for my fellow patients, their families, friends and co-workers for 13 years. Never have I felt more passionate than now that we’re advancing in lockstep in our war against the disease.

Unfortunately, our elected representatives seem oblivious to what’s going on, and forget that millions of their constituents have cancer, will get it in the future, or know someone with the disease. Though we’re making progress and some numbers have indeed come down, on the horizon is the potential for tens of millions of new cases of cancer in our lifetime that should alarm those in Washington who are now trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Nearly every major health care group opposes the Senate bill now being debated, including the main advocacy groups for doctors, nurses, hospitals and retirees, as well as advocates for the treatment of virtually every major disease – including cancer.

Our new president and his cabinet have a lot on their plate. But it appears cancer is not one of the subjects they care to tackle right now. A couple of weeks ago, President Trump held his first full cabinet meeting. As cameras whirled and reporters scribbled, the president’s top lieutenants said a few words in what the media called a bizarre White House performance.

I’ll leave the lively coverage at that, but my one good lung gasped for air when I heard Tom Price, the new secretary of Health and Human Services.

“Mr. President, what an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership. I can’t thank you enough for the privilege that you’ve given me and the leadership that you’ve shown.”

Not a peep about cancer. Nothing about miraculous breakthroughs mentioned at ASCO. Nor did he throw a lifeline to the millions of Americans suffering with cancer and their supportive families. This from the man who wants to cut $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health and another $1 billion from the National Cancer Institute.

But Price is right about a “pivotal time.” We are at a key moment. While the cancer community is moving forward in unified earnest, we need a president who embraces a war on cancer that President Nixon started so many years ago. Now is not the time to pull back. Now is the time to tell America we have cancer in our national cross hairs and we’re going to kill it.

Joe Biden said it best in March at South by Southwest. “Guess what? The only bipartisan thing left in America is the fight against cancer.”

He may be right. But so far, it doesn’t look that way. Perhaps that’s why Joe and his wife Dr. Jill Biden yesterday formally launched the Biden Cancer Initiative. And he’s bringing along Greg Simon, to help him run it. Simon was instrumental in running the Cancer Moonshot Task Force for Biden in the White House.

Looks like the general is back to marshal the troops.

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