By Jeffrey Norris | UCSF.edu | December 6, 2012
The rate of cancer survival is expected to keep climbing in coming years largely thanks to research discoveries that are translating into new cancer drugs, which currently account for roughly 30 percent of the pharmaceutical dollar, the chief scientific officer at Bristol-Myers Squib recently said at a showcase event for the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Improvements in innovation in detection, prevention and treatment have provided real gains against cancers over the past few decades,” Elliott Sigal, MD, PhD, also Bristol-Myers Squib's president of research and development and a former UCSF medical resident, said during his Nov. 7 keynote address at the cancer center.
“Overall, age-adjusted, five-year survival rates in the U.S. have increased by more than one-third since 1975,” Sigal noted. “What’s more, it is estimated that advances in drug therapy – pharmaceuticals – accounted for half or more of these increases in survival rates.”
Sigal discussed three areas of innovation that he said were almost certain to continue to drive cancer survival upward.
The first is an explosion of genetic discoveries that are leading to innovations in drug design and to the better tailoring of treatments to the characteristics of individual tumors, Sigal said. The second is the development of better chemical strategies for delivering drugs to targeted cancer cells within the body. The third thrust is the pharmaceutical manipulation of the body’s own immune system to more aggressively attack cancerous cells.
The successful translation of research discovery into better outcomes for patients depends on companies, universities and government, according to Sigal. “We live in an ecosystem of contributions in the biomedical enterprise: small companies, large companies, government funding – and very importantly – academic researchers,” he said. “Without any one piston of the engine firing, things will fail.”
The UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, which recently received a renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), unites top scientists with exceptional medical practitioners. Their interdisciplinary teamwork enables them not only to make key scientific discoveries, but also to ensure that the knowledge gained leads to better treatments for patients. UCSF’s long tradition of excellence in cancer research includes, notably, the Nobel Prize-winning work of J. Michael Bishop, MD, UCSF chancellor emeritus, and Harold Varmus, MD, who discovered cancer-causing oncogenes. Their work opened new doors for exploring genetic mistakes that cause cancer, and formed the basis for some of the most important cancer research happening today.
Cancers Grouped by Genetic Mutations
The discovery of genetic alterations within cells that drive molecular events leading to their out-of-control growth – and to tumor formation, growth and spread – has changed the way medical researchers think of cancers and their treatment.