Most of us are directly or indirectly impacted by cancer, the second leading cause of death worldwide. While the disease still claims many lives - almost nine million in 20151, important scientific advances over the past decades have translated into increased chances of survival.
However, the battle is far from won: experts are forecasting a 70% increase in the number of cancer cases over the next two decades, and by 2030, cancer is expected to cause 13 million deaths a year, a nearly 50% increase. Cancer occurs when human cells grow uncontrollably, forming tumors that can then spread from one part of the body to another. It is on the rise due to several factors, including bad eating habits and an aging world population; older people being more susceptible to various forms of cancer.
Cancer can strike everyone, no matter where they live, although it proves fatal more often in low- and middle-income regions that have fewer healthcare and screening options. And it doesn’t only impact the patient but also their loved ones.
This personal experience is often what motivates scientists like Gregory who are working on new treatment options.
Advancing cancer knowledge
For decades, standard cancer therapies included surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, or a combination, but as researchers learn more about human genetics, they have also developed a better understanding of how cancer works. That has made it possible to develop new medicines that are meant to target a specific cancer and stop it from spreading. In fact, more than 70% of recent survival gains in cancer are attributable to treatment advances including new medicines.2
From traditional to new therapies
The term “cancer” doesn’t mean a single disease – scientists today recognize hundreds of different cancers that affect humans.
This makes treatment even more challenging because cancer isn’t an external attacker like a virus. “Cancer is us, when our own cells start growing out of control,” said Joanne Lager, Head of Oncology Development at Sanofi. “So, unlike an infection, where you can find something that's different between the infection and the host, the cancer is part of the host.”
As a result, scientists are using new ways to treat cancer that enlist the body’s own immune system to help fight the complex dangers that lurk inside each tumor. “We now have a deep understanding of the biology of tumor cells,” said Laurent Debussche, Head of Sanofi’s Molecular Oncology Research Therapeutic Area, who noted that new technologies are allowing scientists to analyze “massive” amounts of genetic data about cancer.
Returning to a field where it has been an innovator in the past, Sanofi is once again making cancer research a high priority, investing in new technologies and treatments for this enormous unmet need and engaging a complete transformation of its oncology portfolio for the next five years. One area Sanofi is focused on is developing new ways to deliver medicines to tumors that would allow one treatment to engage the immune system in multiple ways.
“Cancers grow very fast and they change easily, they can mutate and develop resistance to therapies,” said Lager. “That’s why we need lots of different ways to attack the tumor and we need to think about ways to combine therapies.”
“Science is about being curious, and there are some times when you are so excited because you know something that no one else in the world knows,” added Gregory. “The idea that you can translate these understandings into therapeutics to help patients is really a driving force behind why we do this, why we are excited about it.”
- http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer, last accessed Aug. 2018
- QuintilesIMS, ARK R&D Intelligence, February 2017; WHO Cancer Database, March 2017; QuintilesIMS, March 2017; IQVIA, ARK R&D Intelligence, February 2017; IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science, March 2017