Q&A

On Cancer: Charles Sawyers Discusses New Report about Cancer Progress and Challenges

By Julie Grisham, MS, Science Writer/Editor  |  Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Charles Sawyers, Chair of the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program Charles Sawyers, Chair of the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program

Yesterday the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) released its 2013 Cancer Progress Report. Charles L. Sawyers, Chair of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program, who is serving this year as president of the AACR, discussed the findings of the report in a press conference held in Washington, DC.

Citing the increasing number of cancer survivors in the United States, more than 13 million today, Dr. Sawyers said, “This is a testament to how the investment we’ve made [in research] is paying off by extending people’s lives.”

But he also expressed concern about the loss of funding for biomedical research, describing “the most serious funding crisis in decades” and noting that “we are beginning to lose already the scientific momentum that has enabled us to develop” many new, more-effective cancer therapies.

Today Dr. Sawyers is participating in the Rally for Medical Research Hill Day, a campaign to raise awareness about the need for a sustained investment in the National Institutes of Health. On behalf of the AACR, he is meeting with members of Congress to urge them to make funding for medical research a priority.

We asked Dr. Sawyers about some of the highlights from the report.

What is some of the good news to come out of the report?

In the past year, the US Food and Drug Administration has approved 11 new cancer drugs, and eight of those were targeted therapies. Targeted therapies block the growth of tumors by focusing on molecular changes that are specific to cancer cells. Because these drugs are designed to act on specific targets found in cancer cells, they generally have fewer side effects than more traditional cancer drugs.

The report also highlights dramatic success with several new immunotherapy drugs. A long-term focus on fundamental discoveries in immunology has led to the development of several anticancer therapies that have shown success in treating some cancers that have historically been difficult to treat, including advanced melanoma. Investigators from Memorial Sloan Kettering have led much of the important work in this field.

What are the big challenges cancer researchers face today?

Overcoming drug resistance is an important area of research. This is a common predicament for many patients treated with targeted therapies: The cancer cells develop additional mutations that allow them to evade the drug and it stops working.

Another challenge is that we need to develop drugs that target the many cancer-related mutations for which we currently have no effective drugs.

More effort needs to be focused on developing better methods to screen people for unsuspected cancers, especially because the diseases are most curable when detected early. We currently have technology that can detect some cancers early but the precision of many of these technologies is lacking.

In addition, we need to do more to prevent cancer from arising in the first place. We know that about half of all cancers are due to causes that could be prevented, such as smoking and obesity, but it’s hard to encourage enough people to change their behavior and have an impact on cancer incidence.

Why is it so important to increase funding for cancer research?

The success we are seeing today is the product of an investment in medical research made over the past ten to 20 years. This is directly reflected in all of the gains that we have highlighted in this year’s report.

However, research support has eroded over the last decade and has been worsened by the sequester [cuts to the federal budget that took effect earlier this year]. We will miss out on future cures if we don’t restore funding.

Download the full report on the AACR website.

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