Major Increase in Cancer Funding 'a Global Priority'

Liam Davenport

December 13, 2016

MUNICH — Policy makers and leaders around the world need to provide robust and sustainable funding for cancer research to capitalize on the opportunities that the latest developments offer in terms of improving patient care and outcomes, say two leading cancer organizations.

The European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) warn that, despite significant increases in our understanding of cancer, a lack of sustained funding will mean that the potential benefits of that research will not be realized.

Speaking at a press conference at the 28th EORTC-NCI-AACR Symposium on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics, the two organizations said that in a time of shrinking health budgets, another major challenge will be to tackle the increasing number of people living with cancer.

There has never been a more exciting time in cancer research. Dr Denis Lacombe

"There has never been a more exciting time in cancer research," commented Denis Lacombe, MD, director general of the EORTC.

"With the surge in molecular biology developments and a growing consideration for cost-benefit balance from a public health perspective, there is an increasing need to invest in cancer research and improved international partnerships to validate new targets and technologies, ensuring they provide real-world benefits to patients," he added.

Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of the AACR, said: "We are in an unprecedented era of scientific discovery that holds enormous promise for new advances in cancer treatment and prevention that could save lives around the world.

"Failure to capitalize upon these scientific opportunities is simply not an option. Now is the time for policy makers worldwide to prioritize and invest in lifesaving cancer research," she said.

Although there have been improvements in survival rates and quality of life thanks to novel and better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer, the disease continues to represent a major public health challenge, the speakers noted.

In 2015, 15.2 million new cancer cases were diagnosed worldwide, and there were 8.2 million cancer deaths. Unchecked, these figures are set to rise to 24 million new cases and 14.6 million cancer deaths by 2035.

Furthermore, a decrease in the overall cancer death rate of 1.5% in the United States from 2003 to 2012 meant that the number of cancer survivors increased from approximately 10 million to 13.7 million during the same period.

Dr Lacombe said that in 2015, almost 600 cancer compounds were in the late stages of development and that 83% of the improvements in cancer survival in recent years are the result of novel treatments.

"However, new oncology drugs still have the lowest rate of success, as these technologies require better alignment with current molecular and technical knowledge," he said. There are also challenges in the form of high prices for drugs and economic constraints, he noted.

Dr Lacombe pointed out that cancer is an extremely heterogeneous disease, making it difficult to identify patterns of relapse, particularly when "industry is working in silos.

"So instead of, I would say, the classical approach, where we write protocols to try to identify from there patients suitable for these written protocols, I think we should completely reinvent the process and put the patient in the center," he suggested.

"This requires a complete reengineering of the clinical research pathway, different types of partnerships, and different types of collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, but this would hopefully provide solutions that would span from proof of concept to drug development into effectiveness and into real-life questions," he continued.

Dr Lacombe noted: "I think that we are in an era which is extremely interesting because of the capacity we have to bring innovation, but the mechanisms through which we bring innovation to patients are currently suboptimal."

He said that in Europe, the EORTC has been in discussion with regulators, the European Commission, and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations to determine "how new partnerships could reposition the patient at the center to try to bring the latest knowledge to patients in a very efficient and cost-effective manor."

Uncertainty Around Future Funding

Dr Foti agreed with Dr Lacombe that innovations such as immunotherapeutics and cancer genomic research, "which are central to precision medicine," represent a "revolution" in the cancer field that "offer hope."

They promise to "dramatically increase the number of potential targets for the development of novel, highly targeted anticancer therapeutics and to identify markers that determine which patients are more likely to respond to a particular treatment."

However, she stressed that there is "a lot of uncertainty about the future of funding for cancer research and biomedical science," adding: "We really need to advocate for more funding for cancer research to maximize patient benefit and save more lives from cancer."

Dr Foti expressed concern that funding for the National Institutes of Health could "remain stagnant" in 2017, as has been the case in previous years. "This is going to affect not only the US but, obviously, what happens in the US typically has an impact all over the world, so we are definitely in this together," she said.

On a more "positive note," she is hopeful that the 21st Century Cures Act, which is currently being voted on by US lawmakers, will be approved. "If passed, it will provide US$1.8 billion over the next 5 years for the National Cancer Moonshot initiative," she said.

Echoing Dr Lacobe's statements, Dr Foti emphasized: "We have to keep our focus on the patient and make sure that we continue to accelerate advances in treatment and prevention around the world."

"While the funding issues faced in the United States differ from those in the Europe, we recognize that global commitment and synergistic international partnerships that are pointed out by Dr Lacombe are required to ensure further rapid progress," she continued.

"We have to make cancer research and related biomedical science a global priority, and together, we feel very strongly we can speed the cure and prevention of all cancers if we have the necessary funding and the resolve to explore new avenues of progress," she added.

Douglas Lowy, MD, acting director of the US National Cancer Institute, said that national investment in research and advanced technologies has helped improve the understanding of cancer and the development of innovative ways to tackle the disease.

He added: "Cancer is a global health problem, and high-quality cancer research is conducted in many countries. To maximize impact and leverage resources, we must ensure that collaborations among researchers, industry, and health organizations also span borders, so we can accelerate progress against cancer for all nations."

The participants have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

28th EORTC-NCI-AACR Symposium on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics.

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