How We Can Cure Cancer Sooner

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  • 08/05/2013
Tailoring cancer studies to fit people who need to get better 

Imagine if our immune systems could vanquish cancer in much the same way they take on the common cold. New research could turn such science fiction into fact.

Currently in the works are several new drugs that can order certain white blood cells - the immune system's warriors - to attack cancer cells. If they prove successful, a world free from cancer could be one step closer. Researchers are increasingly exploring how we can personalize the fight against cancer - harnessing the unique characteristics of our own bodies to beat the disease. Such personalized approaches offer our best shot at eradicating cancer - and should be at the heart of our battle plan against it. Medical science has already made progress.

Since 1990, new medicines have doubled the number of cancer survivors - from six million to 13 million. They have given patients collectively about 43 million years of additional life. These aren't years of pain and desperation. Cancer survivors add about $4.7 trillion in value to the economy just by living and working longer. Today, every dollar spent on new cancer medicines reduces spending on hospitals and doctors by $7. Yet the actual amount we spend on such treatments is small - about 1 percent of total health-care spending. Indeed, spending on innovative cancer research and therapies has already delivered a hefty return on investment. We should double down on that approach.

Step one is to put patients in charge of cancer research. How? Patients can use online communities to test treatments, design studies, and determine better ways to tackle their illnesses. They're already keeping tabs on their health with fitness monitors and tablets. Research should be shaped by these real-time, real-world experiences in combination with information about the particular genetic mechanisms that make their tumors tick. As genomics professor Eric Topol argues: "It is time for a jailbreak; it is time for the rise of the consumers to drive the future of medicine. It is their DNA, their medical data, their cellphones, and their own health at stake."

That jailbreak should include replacing one-size-fits-all research with personalized cancer studies. The Human Genome Project empowers researchers to do so. Personal genomes can now be sequenced in a few hours for under $500. Such sequencing can yield medicines that are truly personalized. Several cancer organizations, including the International Myeloma Foundation, StandUp2Cancer, and the Sarcoma Foundation of America, require researchers to look for genetic cues that could lead to cures. This should be the rule, not the exception.

These personalized approaches could also allow regulators to get new cancer medicines to market faster. Developing a new cancer medicine takes 8.8 years, on average - much longer than for other drugs. Most of this time and effort is spent testing medicines in people who researchers know won't benefit. But by focusing solely on patients and their specific cancer-causing genetic mutations, researchers could identify what therapies work early on. That could mean approving cancer therapies as fast as HIV medicines - in two to three years.

Government officials can also get personalized treatments into the hands of patients more quickly by requiring health plans to pay for them. Advances in cancer treatment are saving lives and cutting health-care costs. But many health-insurance plans haven't caught up with the times. Many cancer patients are forced to choose between a treatment that could save their lives - or one that's paid for. Insurers should instead pay for the right treatment for the right patient.

Under the health-care status quo, cancer treatment is divided up according to who gets paid. Innovations that save money are pitted against services that lose money. New "Charter Cancer Communities" can solve that problem by focusing specifically on the value of care. Like public charter schools, these communities would have greater flexibility to use and pay for the combination of treatments that deliver real value. And they'd be accountable to the member organizations and to the patients they serve. Thanks to recent advances in medical science, we're closer to a world free from cancer. If we ratchet up our investments in personalized medicine, that world can become a reality.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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