Cancer treatments have been the focus of enormous research investment for decades. Despite a wide range of discoveries and treatment advances, cancer stubbornly remains the second leading cause of death worldwide. In 2015, cancer was responsible for 8.8 million deaths, according to the WHO.
Thanks to recent advances in genetics, immunology, and improved targeted therapies, researchers are beginning to win their long fight against the many forms of the disease. Experts gathered at the Boston Cancer Summit last week pointed to these advanced tools as one of the most encouraging developments in cancer research in decades.
“Even five years ago, we observed that companies developing and licensing new cancer drugs, seemed to be seeing extension of life by perhaps 3-6 months,” said Dr. Gary Nabel, Chief Scientific Officer of Sanofi, which sponsored the event. “But the new immunotherapies, when a patient responds to the therapy, appear to be promising.”
Scaling Mt. Everest for Research
The Summit was the brainchild of veteran journalist Luke Timmerman, who has covered cancer research for almost 15 years. To call greater attention to these new technologies – and encourage increased investment in research – Timmerman is taking his passion on the topic to new heights – literally to the highest place on Earth. He plans to join a team of climbers ascending the summit of Mt. Everest at the end of March to raise funds to support the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in his hometown of Seattle.
Timmerman’s fundraising site notes that he has been writing about cancer research for 15 years, and climbing mountains “almost that long.” With research “at a moment of tremendous possibility,” he hopes to propel awareness and further investment into the cause. His enthusiasm, and the potential of the science, also led Sanofi become an early sponsor.
“We chose to sponsor the Summit not only to support Luke’s quest, but to bring together some of the leading scientists, investors and experts in the field to share information and our enthusiasm about the great progress that is being made every day,” Nabel said.
“Over the past ten years or so, our understanding of the molecular biology of tumor cells, and how to manipulate the immune system to focus it in a selective way against tumors, has come a long way,” said Dr. Joanne Jenkins Lager, Sanofi’s Head of Development for Oncology. “We finally have the tools where we can begin to develop selective and effective therapies in clinic.”
Scientific Advancements Spur Investment
The potential for applying these tools to research has created excitement among investors as well, particularly when it comes to developing treatments for cancers that today remain untreatable. Both biopharma companies and venture investors are significantly increasing their funding for R&D into new cancer treatments.
“I am optimistic about the future and about our oncology pipeline,” said Lager. “We have a lot of exciting new things in research and development that weren’t being studied for patients just five years ago.”
Streamlining Clinical Trials
Because cancer remains such a killer, R&D scientists are “in a hurry” to identify and test promising new therapies. To help reduce the potential time between discovery and patient, Sanofi is looking for ways to make the clinical trial process more efficient. That includes things like streamlining data collection and finding ways to make it easier for more patients to participate in trials.
“We want to design efficient protocols, and really think through what we need and what we don’t,” Lager said. “We want to make sure we’re not putting too many restrictions on patients to participate, while maintaining our focus on safety, and that we’re collecting the data we want and need, but not necessarily every piece that we can.”
As Timmerman prepares for his climb, researchers head back to their labs to continue their trek toward new and more effective cancer treatments.
“Our goals in oncology and immuno-oncology are simple,” Nabel said. “Accelerate the launch of new treatments, and make decisions in our early R&D portfolio designed to give patients even better treatments to defeat incurable cancers.”